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A CurtainUp NJ Review
Brick City
Are you kidding me? They're making me come here against my will and they didn't even get me a desk? Where am I supposed to work? — Jessie
Madison Ferris and Chris Grant photo credit: Ian Alfano
Attending the world premiere of a new play by a writer without a significant track record is always a challenge and an adventure for the critic. The experience sometimes ends with disappointment but can also end with a feeling of elation as it did for me watching Nicole Pandolfo's Brick City. This new play, as performed by a company of four exceptionally talented actors under the direction Jessi D. Hill, held me in its grip for the entire ninety minutes of its duration.

The result of a two-year commission sponsored by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the New Jersey Theatre Alliance and three professional producing theaters, Brick City is a fast-moving, well-crafted and evocative play about two Newark New Jersey high school students and the relationship that they develop between themselves and with a sensitive but uncompromising teacher at a critical time in their lives and in their education.

Resistant to the goals of the teacher to see them get the grades they need to graduate and apply for college, they struggle with personal and family issues that stem both directly and indirectly from their socio-economic worlds and in one case a physical disability. Not having a chance to glance at my program before the lights dimmed, I was surprised by the first stage entrance of a young woman in a motorized wheelchair who careens in and out and around the study hall where most of the action takes place(nicely designed by Bethanie Wampol Watson).

Careening is also the best way to describe the way the extremely bright but also bitter Jessie (Madison Ferris) delivers her flippant, often caustic responses to both Darnell (Chris Grant), the good-looking star basketball player, and, even more disrespectfully to Veronica (Jacqueline Correa), the teacher whose own life we soon discover is also in a state of flux. Ms Ferris made an impact just as she did in her Broadway debut only two seasons ago as Laura in director Sam Gold's controversial approach to Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie . In Gold's version, Laura's slight disability was addressed through the reality of Ms Ferris, an actor with muscular dystrophy.

In Brick City Ferris not only creates a compelling character but portrays her with a fierceness and a vigor that fuels a good portion of the play. Recognized as a talented photographer by Veronica (sensitively portrayed by Jacqueline Correa) Jessie is battling her own demons, living by her wits and practically homeless. She fights the well-meaning determined Veronica every step of the way. Jessie's resistance to Veronica's help is as palpable as are the verbal assaults directed to Darnell, a young man with whom she both taunts and flirts. One of the play's most intimate scenes sees Darnell and Jessie finding a commonality through their love of chess.

Grant is terrific as the despairing Darnell who fears he may not be a candidate for a basketball scholarship. He is also faced with the burden of helping his single mom pay the rent and assume responsibilities for a younger sibling. As it that wasn't enough, he gets a visit from his cousin Rogelio (an excellent Rafael Benoit), a petty thief just released after five years in jail. That Rogelio also turns out to be Veronica's ex-lover adds a slightly incredulous twist to the plot but it also adds to the complexity of entwined lives within a community. Full of swagger and street smarts, Rogelio reenters their lives envisioning himself an "entrepreneur." He comes close to implicating Darnell and Veronica in a new illegal venture.

Pandolfo expressively defines the play's four characters in a series of confrontations that are not only blistering but also believable. Even though the few scenes in which the relationship between Veronica and Rogelio are interestingly explored, they may be in need of little more development. We are, however, immersed from the start in the unlikely bond created between two very different teenagers in a surprisingly enabling set of circumstances. If any message is to be gleaned from this fine play is that a brick city need not be a barrier for those willing to scale its walls.

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Brick City by Nicole Pandolfo
Directed by Jessi D. Hill
Cast: Chris Grant (Darnell King), Madison Ferris (Jessie McKenna), Jacqueline Correa (Veronica Vega), Rafael Benoit (Rogelia Ayala).
Set Design: Bethanie Wampol Watson
Lighting Design: Greg Solomon
Sound Design: Matthew Fischer
Production Stage Manager: Dale Smallwood
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes no intermission
Premiere Stages at Kean Bauer Boucher Theatre Center on the Kean University campus, Union, N.J.
Tickets: $30, $20 for seniors, $15 students
Performances: Thursday and Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 3 pm.
From 09/06/18 Opened 09/07/18 Ends 09/23/18
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 09/07/18 (2018 New Jersey)

NJ Theaters
NJ Theatre Alliance
Discount Tix Information

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