In The Villages, polished look at global ‘Neighbors’
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.