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A CurtainUp Review
Why We Left Brooklyn
or The Dinner Party Play
By Elyse Sommer
So why would anyone leave a place with so many amenities nowadays associated with the good life — lots of cafes and gourmet food shops and farmer's markets, yoga classes, and most importantly, a circle of like-minded circle of friends. For starters, there's of course the incredibly high cost, especially with a lasting recession that's in full swing in 2010 which is when Matthew Freeman's Why I Left Brooklyn takes place.
Jason is Freeman's trigger character to explore the ripple effect his move Columbus, Ohio to teach at a college. To start with, there's the fact that Jason isn't just answering the knock of opportunity for a steady job and more affordable housing, but doing so as part of a tough look at the limitations of his talent. Add to that the effect on his 8-year marriage. Though he and Michelle are still in love and she's agreed to give up her day job, her ambitions as a writer have been realized with a book deal. The fact that her publisher wants her to be in New York to promote the book when it comes out, has resulted in a change in plans: Michelle will be staying with neighborhood friends, Jason's college buddy and fellow actor George (David DelGrosso) and his wife Franny (Marguerite Simpson) and join Jason at a later, as yet unspecified, date.
Though temporary, the unplanned separation does create marital tension and, unsurprisingly, kicks up underlying problems. The playwright ratchets up the tensions of this combination move and temporary separation by having Jason and Michelle throw a night-before the exodus dinner party with packing boxes substituting for a dinner dining table.
Jason expects his friends to be happy for him and wish him well, and indeed there's a good deal of bonhomie as the guests arrive. However, the gathering unspools a good deal of anger about this leaving of Brooklyn. George, especially sees Jason's Ohio sojourn as an abandonment and introduces a debate-like confrontation into the party, a debate which in turn exacerbates the Jason-Michelle marital dynamic.
All but two of the guests are old friends: Besides Franny and George, there's the eccentric Charlie (Matthew Trumbull), another college mate and actor; the outspoken Nicole (Moira Stone), the only member of the group who has opted for motherhood; the colorful but unfocused Leeanna (Sarah K. Lippmann), who's unmarried, as is Dawn (Rebecca Gray Davis), who is gainfully and successfully employed by a museum. The two outsiders are Leeanna's boyfriend, restaurateur Harry (Jay Leibowitz) and Sanjeet (Imran Sheikh) a new man in Dawn's life.
Plays with casts this large are nowadays rarely seen except in revivals by well-known playwrights. New plays, even by established scribes tend to be geared to a theater economy that prefers no more than four actors. Only small companies used to putting on low-budget productions like Theater Accident and Blue Coyote Theater Group who are co-producing Why We Left Brooklyn can accommodate a cast of ten. That large cast allows Mr. Freeman to make this as much an amusing portrait of a particular segment of the Big Apple's culture as well a drama about Jason and Michelle's marriage and Jason and George's friendship. Harry and Sanjeet broaden the Park Slope portrait.
As it turns out, however, Mr. Freeman would have done better to not indulge himself with quite this big a cast. Sure, this allows him to take a stab at a Shavian style discussion play that covers everything from trendy food to yoga to politics. But the result, though often amusing, is too talky and overstuffed. I kept thinking of Donald Margulies's Dinner With Friends which focused on two couples who were close friends for years so that the divorce of one pair stirred up unintended feelings of anger and jealousy in the still married pair. It wasn't the most original story ever told, but it won a Pulitzer because the characters and situation were so believably and fully developed.
While one would not be wrong to expect a play set in 2010 to be relevant to the economic upheavals Americans everywhere have been and are still experiencing this is basically just another play about actors for whom frequent and long periods of unemployment or underpaid and unsuccessful gigs are par for the course in good as well as bad times. There are other questionable aspects to the basic premise. Jason's job is a somewhat questionable opportunity. It's not as if a teaching job at a college anywhere held even the remotest promise of tenure, health care and pension benefits as was once a case. Adjuncts tend to be underpaid and under appreciated.
As for Michelle's need to stay in New York to promote her book, this too begs a closer look. Nowadays the big promotional push for books is via the internet and even big name authors have fewer New York and other big market television interview opportunities. So much for Michelle, an unknown author with a small press. (I can personally attest to this, having just published a new edition of one of my books with a small publisher).
In this production, smaller would have avoided the sense that some of these characters have been brought on scene mostly as an excuse to send up some aspect of Park Slope life. (Interestingly, much as I enjoy a full sized cast this is the second play I've seen this week with a large cast that wasn't really in the best interest of the play's structure). I should add that the cast features some excellent performances though none are on a par with Matthew Trumbull's wonderfully eccentric Charlie. Director Kyle Ancowitz would have been well advised to persuade the playwright to trim his script so that it could be performed in 90 minutes without an intermission. In a theater without a lobby or drinks and candy setup and a play with a bare bones single set, the two five-minute intermissions seem rather pointless.
All my quibbles aside, Mr. Freeman knows his Park Slope from first-hand experience. He's unlikely to give up playwriting even if his plays don't become long-running hits. Fortunately, unlike Jason, he doesn't have to move to Ohio to pay his own Park Slope rent. Like many actors and playwrights living in New York he's managed to find a day job he likes right in the Big Apple. Of course, if Jason had gotten a teaching gig right here, there wouldn't have been a play.