Best friends forever?

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By Doug Deuchler

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Friendships are fascinating, especially those of long standing. Carroll Gardens, the world premiere comedy by A. Zell Williams at 16th Street Theater, focuses intensely on a decades-long relationship between two 30-year-old guys who became best friends when they were 10. 

This nuanced, tightly paced production fits snugly into the theme of Season 9 at 16th Street: Loyalty. We witness the challenge of maintaining a lasting relationship when both friends' lives have gone in different directions. 

 Playwright Williams, a New York writer, sets his insightful, often quite funny new work in Carroll Gardens, an older but lately gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn. 

 The first-rate actors are intensely credible. The leads are especially touching and strong.

 The show opens with a scene 20 years before the bulk of the action: a pair of boys, played by two remarkable child actors, are hanging out together after school in small-town California. Davu Smith plays Davis, an African American child who has just been "jumped" and beaten up for being an "Oreo." The term refers to a black person who is "white on the inside," acting or speaking in ways that might be said to be more white than black. The other child, Robby, portrayed by Rowan Moxley, is new at the school. He's a white working-class kid whose mother has died. Davis is being raised by his single mom, a nurse who is strict and protective. The two are drawn together as a pair of outsiders who are bright, open, and relaxed together. Their new relationship is tentative yet they share a lot of common ground.

 This swift-paced, perceptive drama, directed smoothly by Ann Filmer, provides a lot of laughs but also often makes us uncomfortable. We witness Davis' 30th birthday party when profane, "weed"-loving Robby shows up out of the blue, having come by bus all the way from California where he still lives in their old hometown. Robby is uneducated but well read.

 Davis, now a hipster screenwriter, has come a long way. A script he wrote was made into a film and now he's working on another, maybe an autobiographical story with a racial angle. Davis lives in a trendy area with a white woman named Quinley, played by Alex Fisher. She teaches Pilates and loves Davis despite some lack of common ground between them. Perhaps Davis doesn't really fit in any more than he did as an outsider kid.

 As soon as Robby shows up, Davis almost immediately realizes there is a great chasm between the two old buddies. He admits he sucks at staying in touch. To maintain friendships you cannot have such huge gaps. Davis feels Robby represents a part of his past he's left behind. Other than their distant history, what do they now share?

 Robby, ever the truth-teller, is not impressed with much of what he witnesses in Carroll Gardens, especially "rich people pretending to be everything they are not." He mocks the lentils and kale that Quinley has Davis eating. Robby makes everyone confront their beliefs. Yet he's always making people edgy and uneasy.

 When Davis tells Robby that Quinley "accepts me for who I am," Robby adds, "You mean this version of who you are."

 Robby always wants to "blaze one" (smoke a joint) with his old buddy. He hears Quinley talking on the phone to one of her Pilates clients, then tries to convince Davis she's having a fling with the guy. I feared we might be heading into an Iago, Othello, and Desdemona situation! 

 Will this pair of old friends be able to maintain their relationship or has it run its course? Have they changed too much? Can they still accept each other for who they are?

 The set by Joanna Iwanicka is smart and attractive, effectively providing several acting areas.

Carroll Gardens runs through Oct. 15. It cannot be extended the way some 16th Street Theater shows have been. I predict this will be a solid hit, so book your tickets ASAP. Their recent productions have solidly sold out every performance.

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