In The Vil­lages, pol­ished look at global ‘Neigh­bors’

Orlando Sentinel - - PEOPLE & ARTS - Matthew J. Palm [email protected] or­lan­dosen­

The houses that sit side by side in “Neigh­bors: A Fair Trade Agree­ment” don’t look like they be­long in the same neigh­bor­hood. One is prim and tidy, com­plete with a white rock­ing chair on the front porch; the other, a bit more ram­shackle with an old lawn mower out front and a half­drunk bot­tle of Jose Cuervo on the win­dowsill.

But it quickly be­comes clear that Bernardo Cubría’s play, on­stage at The Stu­dio Theatre Tierra del Sol, doesn’t mean for us to take the struc­tures as a lit­eral neigh­bor­hood. Think more glob­ally.

In “Neigh­bors,” mak­ing its south­east­ern U.S. de­but here, Cubría brings up so many is­sues — race, priv­i­lege, class, char­ity, health, big busi­ness — it’s im­pos­si­ble to give any of them its due. But he has a knack of tak­ing his story in directions you don’t ex­pect. And he mag­i­cally has made fullfledge­d char­ac­ters out of pro­tag­o­nists Joe and Jose, each a col­lec­tion of stereo­types bound up into cul­tural avatars.

Joe, given the per­fect air of en­ti­tle­ment by Kevin McKil­lip, likes the Beach Boys, re­cites daily af­fir­ma­tions and wears a silk bathrobe. He works at home and is proud of his mil­lion­aire sta­tus.

We first see José, a Mex­i­can im­mi­grant, in a white tank top, smok­ing a cig­a­rette and try­ing to get that dang mower to start.

The lawns of the two men, who you will note share the same name, is sep­a­rated by the Rio Gra — I mean a creek, that bur­bles along. That is, un­til “en­ergy” is dis­cov­ered on Jose’s prop­erty and de­vel­oped by in­dus­tri­al­ist Joe. The more en­ergy pumped out, the more money rolls in, and the more the creek fades from blue to brown.

The creek’s de­cline is just one of the in­ter­est­ing scenic-de­sign choices that lift “Neigh­bors.” The ma­chine that pumps the “en­ergy,” as it’s al­ways called, is a lit­tle marvel — puff­ing out smoke while lights flash and spilling its toxic con­tents. Scenic de­signer Ken­neth Con­stant has also con­structed two beau­ti­ful houses that tell you a lot about their own­ers right off the bat.

Mon­ica Titus’s cos­tumes also have plenty to say about their wear­ers — and take a turn for the fun at play’s end when all heck breaks loose in the fan­ci­ful fi­nale.

It’s a highly pol­ished pro­duc­tion all the way around, in fact. Di­rec­tor Nathaniel Niemi gets fine char­ac­ter work from his lead­ing men, though he strug­gles to build mo­men­tum at the play’s start, be­fore Cubría in­tro­duces any sig­nif­i­cant con­flict.

McKil­lip’s en­ti­tle­ment is aug­mented by a de­light­ful sense of pe­tu­lance that his wis­dom and “benev­o­lence” are not re­spected enough. Ale­jan­dro Gue­varez makes José real, warts and all. You root for him, then are ir­ri­tated by him. (Gue­varez re­cently did sim­i­lar fine work in Mad Cow Theatre’s “Fade.”)

Niemi also gets great results from two clowns who re-dress the set in be­tween scenes. Alyson John­son and Rachel Whit­ting­ton, without ad­ding a word, help re­mind the au­di­ence this isn’t ex­actly real. At least not in the lit­eral way it’s be­ing por­trayed. Nick Erick­son’s sound de­sign adds to that sense of whimsy.

“Those are not the rules of the game,” José laments at one point. Cubría has writ­ten a thought-pro­vok­ing look at the big­ger-pic­ture game, and The Stu­dio Theatre has done his tale jus­tice.

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