New Theater's Property Line: War in the burbs
Juan C. Sanchez knows how to craft richly drawn characters with wit and wisdom. The New World School of the Arts grad was a Carbonell
Award nominee for Best New Work in 2008 for Red Tide, a play about two brothers and a woman who comes between them. It was picked up by a festival in Minnesota and praised across the state.
Now comes Property Line, which had its world premiere last weekend and runs through April 8. The briskly structured, character-driven tale of loss, culture clash, and possession tells the story of Mag (Barbara Sloan) and her husband Charlie (Bill Schwartz), WASPy empty-nesters living in a quaint Miami community. "We're living in a state of constipation," Charlie muses at one point. "And by state, I mean Florida."
Mag is a liberal-minded human rights advocate, and Charlie is a pot-smoking retired travel writer and avid cyclist. The two seem content with their lives until, one day, their recently widowed Cuban next-door neighbor Blanca (Evelyn Perez) suddenly turns belligerent, claiming that the part of Mag and Charlie's fence that divides the two yards is on her property and is, therefore, legally hers.
Blanca's motivation is a twisted sort of love. Her husband discovered the property-line issue just before a gruesome car accident decapitated him. She was left to raise their teenage son Danny (Javier Cabrera), who witnessed the carnage.
The easygoing Charlie wants no part of this feud. He constantly expresses his desire to travel the world, to see the bushmen of Australia, to get away from Miami. But Mag feels betrayed by Blanca, who has been their neighbor for more than 20 years and was her best friend. She's perplexed by her neighbor's abrupt transformation from ally to angry, aggressive, and confrontational enemy.
With charm, humor, and tension-filled moments, Sanchez deftly uses this synopsis as a commentary on fear, loss, change, and, ultimately, the conflict of culture and perceptions that permeates South Florida. "I'm exploring feelings of displacement," he says of the play's layered themes. "Fear of losing what you believe is rightfully yours, how things change, and what role race plays in all this."
Loss is the distinctive theme that seemingly wraps around every fiber of the characters' lives. There are major differences in age, culture, and political ideology among them, but they all have loss in common.
Charlie and Mag have lost their son to college. Charlie has lost his youth. Mag has lost her best friend. Blanca and Danny have lost a husband and father. "I start with a premise," Sanchez says as he explains his writing process. "Then I try to figure out who the people in the play are, to tell their story. Then I figure out how they're connected to each other. Slowly, plot emerges."
Sanchez, who works as box office manager for New Theatre, was approached by the theater group to write the play, but Property Line has been in the works for a while. It is really a collaboration among artistic director Ricky J. Martinez, managing director Eileen Suarez, and the playwright.
"About five years ago, I met someone who was involved in a property-line dispute with her neighbor," Sanchez says. "I thought there was an interesting play there, so I filed the idea away. A year and a half ago the idea resurfaced, and I told Ricky about this play I wanted to write about land and territorial instinct. He committed to it immediately. Eileen jumped onboard, and a commission was born."
Property Line is seen mostly through Charlie and Mag's perspective, and there's genuine onstage chemistry between actors Barbara Sloan and Bill Schwartz. They're an amiable, likable pair, and Sloan, who is a New Theatre regular, absolutely shines as Mag in what is probably her best performance to date. Her vulnerability and charm are on full display. Her manic yet delightfully charismatic delivery is the play's driving force.
Schwartz, whom some might recognize as a former Miami Police Department spokesman, is a revelation. He began doing dinner theater at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in the '70s and has developed into quite an actor. In Property Line, he brings the house down as the genial, reformed hippie Charlie. The play is worth catching simply to see Lieutenant Bill smoking grass, downing miniature bottles of whiskey, and prancing around in nothing but a loincloth.
Evelyn Perez is all sound and fury as Blanca. There's deep-seeded anguish in the screaming and obscenities that turn her from villain to sympathetic figure. Javier Cabrera, a student at the Theatre Academy at Coral Reef Senior High School, adds some punch and grit as Blanca's son Danny, a hoodie-wearing, pot-smoking kid who finds himself inadvertently caught in the middle of the shitstorm.
The entire production, which features multiple scene changes as well as various characters going through an array of emotions, flows like clockwork under Martinez's direction. Approximately two hours with a ten-minute intermission, Property Line breezes between scene changes and musical intervals that vary from Jimmy Buffett to jazz instrumentals to Eminem. And the characters' sharp comedic banter and taut emotional outbursts keep what could easily become a tiresome plot device interesting and engaging. There's one issue, though. Though the play seems to build to an emotional climax, the payoff is a tad clichéd and abrupt. Still, overall it's a strong production that delves into familiar territory for those of us who live in a place that's not always as sunny as it appears.
Land disputes and stereotypes are as old as time. But Property Line does a fine job of moving us all a little closer to Sanchez's goal: "Gain a greater understanding of what unites us."
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