Joel Holiday in Corner Wars
(Photo: Ian Baguskas)
Joel Holiday in Corner Wars
(Photo: Ian Baguskas)
The Philadelphia neighborhood where Corner Wars takes place may be among the largest open-air crack markets in the country. As a setting for dramatic events, it's familiar turf, depicted in countless TV cop shows and angry films by angry young directors. Theater for a New Generation's Corner Wars, the first play by 23-year old playwright/actor Tim Dowlin, is steeped in the language and culture of the urban world it depicts but fails to surprise us, relying instead on clichés. The result is an evening with four commendable performances among the too-large cast of sixteen, and a show that flirts with excellence but is married to the mundane.

The sheer size of the cast is an indicator that Dowlin is a neophyte playwright; such numbers are not required to tell this tale movingly and they make the show unwieldy to direct, as we see throughout the evening. Several scenes are ill rehearsed, with actors stepping on lines and the tone veering unintentionally toward the comical. The play opens on the corner where it all happens; we see a tableau of neighborhood activity in the drug trade set to a compelling, original, hip hop soundtrack, followed by a scene in which one young black man helps another prepare for the GED high school graduation equivalency test. "Spell 'promise'" demands Kareem (David Shaw) of Brody (Cornell McIntosh), oblivious to the irony that we see too clearly. Unfortunately, one of the problems of the play is that we rarely see the promise of these young men clearly enough to care about them as deeply as we'd like to, this despite Dowlin's precocious gifts for dialogue and ensemble writing.

Along with the young Chris (Joel Holiday) and the even younger Dex (Omar Evans), Kareem and Brody sell weed and crack on the corner. Under the supervision of Jay (Eric Carter, who provides one of the production's four terrific performances), their operation has regular shifts, accounts, lookouts, and a surprising level of organization for a criminal outfit. The discipline of these young men in pursing their livelihood is intriguing. So is the fact that, like their real-life counterparts who inspired these events -- those killed in the notorious Lex Street massacre in Philadelphia -- they are relatively drug free themselves.

Also intriguing are the flashes of tenderness we see in the young men's interaction with the women on the block, including the terrific Erika Myers as 'Tashna and the more hesitant Carolina Rios as Marisol, both offering a hint of three-dimensionality in the characters that is never fully manifested. In a nice touch, the local cop on the beat, Raul (Ramon Aponte), is a childhood friend of nearly everyone involved in the operation and fully aware of what's happening on the corner. He must make a painful, daily choice between busting his friends or permitting illegal activity that involves minimal violence; he tends toward the latter but tries to set the young men on a new path. Raul's tense relationship with Brody's brother and the newly released ex-con Troy (Ray Thomas) forms part of the plot that does not achieve liftoff; their hostility emerges in a few scenes but never comes to a head.

As the second act begins, the naturalistic style of the play is broken by a monologue from one of the corner's customers, a former schoolteacher turned crack addict nicknamed Smokey. Warren Merrick III does excellent work in this role, creating a soft-spoken, intelligent human being existing within the shell of compulsion. Here, as elsewhere one feels that the playwright is struggling to expose the inner life of his characters but does not yet possess the skills to do so gracefully. Dowlin's ear for dialogue is outstanding, though, erring only occasionally as it does in scenes involving detectives Cirilli (Mike Sharp) and Gorbonski (Joyce Storey) and the social worker, Ms. Roberts (Susie Amato.)

Had Mel Williams, director of the show and artistic director of Theater for a New Generation, given Dowlin a chance to work with a professional dramaturg, the result might have been better. To stage the work of an inexperienced, 23-year-old playwright is both risky and admirable; to do so in the high-profile arena of Off-Broadway can be unfair.

On the other hand, one might argue that a great way to learn is to jump in feet-first. That's certainly the approach of David Shaw as Kareem, Eric Carter as Jay, Omar Evans as Dex, and Erika Myers as 'Tashna, who do so with terrific energy. They bring a fire and immediacy to their roles that elevates everything else in the play. Mel Williams should be commended for his willingness to shepherd young talent, but he isn't quite up to the combined challenges of shaping a new script and directing a large cast. Corner Wars leaves us with an overall impression of promise unfulfilled.