“Brick City,” a drama currently being produced by Premiere Stages at Kean University, is indeed set in the Brick City (i.e., Newark), and there are a few local references in the dialogue. But really, it could take place in just about any urban public school dealing with dwindling resources and staff cuts and so on.
That’s not a complaint. Playwright Nicole Pandolfo, who wrote this new work with the support of the NJPAC Stage Exchange program, creates memorable characters who have universal problems and interact with each other in ways that seem real. It’s an absorbing one-act play. Just don’t expect it to reflect much of the Newark setting.
Then again, how could it? All the action takes place in a generic high school classroom, a high school hallway, and a high school parking lot.
Despite the drab setting, Pandolfo tells a complex, tension-filled story, with characters who all reveal more layers than we initially suspect they have. Madison Ferris excels in the play’s juiciest role: Jessie, a smart but underachieving student who is confined to a motorized wheelchair and lashes out at the world with withering sarcasm. She gets under the skin of everyone she comes in contact with. “You know I don’t respect boundaries, or whatever,” she announces with her trademark smirk.
Chris Grant plays Darnell, an amiable star athlete who is taking extended study hall with her, in order to get his grades up so he can keep playing basketball and, hopefully, win a college scholarship.
Jacqueline Correa is Veronica, a competent and well-meaning math teacher who supervises the study hall. We eventually learn that she has a bit of a checkered past that involved a relationship with Rogelio (played by Rafael Benoit), who is also Darnell’s cousin. Rogelio has recently been released from prison, where he earned a business degree; he’s ambitious, and has the assertiveness and persuasiveness of a born salesman, but he doesn’t have the patience go straight.
In the course of the play, we learn some harrowing details about Jessie’s life outside of school, and about Chris’ family difficulties, as well. Meanwhile, Rogelio shows up in the study hall, showing a vulnerable side as he pleads with Veronica to rekindle their relationship (which ended when he went to prison). He also, though, asks for Darnell’s help in his budding bookie enterprise.
The central relationship is the platonic friendship between Jessie and Darnell, who spar with each other but also develop a bond, which Pandolfo sketches with great subtlety and restraint.
Director Jessi D. Hill adds some atmosphere with snatches of old-school hip-hop — by Eric B. & Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest and others — played between scenes. It’s a bit heavy-handed, though, to have Darnell almost always carrying a basketball, and to have Jessie, an aspiring photographer, almost always have a camera hanging from a strap draped around her neck. Real high school basketball players and shutterbugs don’t do that.
Set designer Bethanie Wampol Watson effectively evokes the soulless functionality of a typical high school classroom, and cleverly evokes the parking lot with a few yellow lines painted onto the theater’s floor.
Premiere Stages will present “Brick City” at the Bauer Boucher Theatre Center at Kean University in Union, through Sept. 23; visit premierestagesatkean.com.