TAMPA — Sometimes in neighborhoods, the smallest things can start a war. In Neighbors, a new play about people of different ethnic backgrounds living together, all it took was a dog, doing what dogs tend to do in yards.
The comedy plays havoc with so many stereotypes, the carpet might as well be made of land mines. A white doctor with a mysterious past and his wife want to be cool with African-Americans so badly, they break the Cringe-O-Meter.
Scouting office space on Nebraska Avenue, he says, was "like driving into Compton every day."
Dante (at war with Ned) and his wife Elaine, who are black, reply with a stare.
Ned, a curmudgeonly black neighbor (who owns the dog that almost started a war) refers to a Puerto Rican neighbor as "Jose," "Hector," "Harpo" or "Julio," anything but Ricardo. A couple of times, characters nearly come to blows.
The cast on that stage told a larger, happier story. A certain universality and ultimate acceptance connected three very different couples and one cranky loner. That said, no one could outdo David and his wife, Gina, who met at a swinger's club, in awkward etiquette fails.
In one memorable exchange, Elaine listens to David rhapsodizing about the way "you people" make fried chicken, and answers his question, "What is your secret?" with a one-word rebuttal.
Ricardo and his wife Sarai fight a lot about where they will go on a vacation that never seems to happen. (And Cornelio Aguilera does marvelous work as Ricardo.)
Not a lot happens in the first act, but it's best not to get hung up on things like that. A couple of times during the show I found myself thinking, "These jokes are kind of sitcom." The next thought was, "Yeah, but you're laughing at them." And I laughed more during Neighbors than the last several farces combined.
The quirks keep on coming as Gina slips cannabis or cocaine into the food or punch bowl on game night (which by the second act has become a regular event because whether they realize it or not, these people are bonding). Cast members are not professional actors — all, including Lawrence, work full-time jobs — yet held their own. Of particular note, Tiffany Edwards shone as Elaine, a character who lays down clear lines of demarcation and exacts penalties for anyone who crosses them.
By the end, masks come off and secrets are shared. There's a rare warmth and humanity to this show, and all of Lawrence's work. But that was just the appetizer. The festival hosts acting and playwriting workshops, including one with The Blacklist star Harry Lennix, and nine full-length plays as well as several shorts.
Lawrence, who with his wife Kahlila founded the Tampa Bay Theatre Festival five years ago, didn't mind admitting to the audience in an post-show talkback that he finished the play after rehearsals had started. The main thing, he said, was keeping a good mood going.
"There's so much craziness out there," Lawrence said. "If you can just get people together and goof on each other, it can work."