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Theatre in Review: Why We Left Brooklyn (Theatre Accident and Blue Coyote/Fourth Street Theatre)

Susan Louise O'Connor, Matthew Trumbull, David DelGrosso, and Marguerite Stimpson. Photo: Kyle Ancowitz

In Why We Left Brooklyn, Matthew Freeman has done a radical thing: He has written a three-act play. This may not sound like much to you, but let me assure you that this format, once a staple of contemporary drama, went the way of the dodo just around the time Neil Simon put the finishing touches on The Star-Spangled Girl. Someone, somewhere, sometime decided audiences would no longer put up with two intermissions, that their rapidly shrinking attention spans would be taxed to the breaking point. As a result, this most elegant of dramatic structures has been largely abandoned.

This, I think, is a revealing detail of a play that is both highly contemporary and rooted in the classic American tradition. An account of a dinner party in Brooklyn sometime in 2010, Why We Left Brooklyn is full of such modern cultural signifiers as hydroponic gardeners, adult comic-book collectors, varying schools of yoga, peanut allergies, iPods, Internet startups, the website known as Jezebel, and the prevalence of Austin Pendleton in Off Broadway productions. And yet, with its exceptionally literate dialogue, its seriocomic treatment of an essentially sad situation, and, yes, that three-act setup, it feels like the 21st-century version of a comedy by Philip Barry or S. N. Behrman. Like them, Freeman finds meaning in contemporary manners and mores, seeing in them the keys to his characters' personal dilemmas.

American literature is loaded with stories of talented young people trying to conquer New York. Fewer writers treat the subject of those who, after years of struggle, throw in the towel. That's the case with Freeman's protagonists, Jason and Michelle. An actor who, at 35, has never gotten past the Equity showcase stage, he is leaving for Columbus, Ohio, and a job as an adjunct professor. At 30, she is about to have her first book -- a historical novel about Madame Blavatsky -- published by one of the smaller presses. His departure is imminent; she is staying behind temporarily, to promote the book. It goes without saying that the vagueness of this plan is a source of quiet discord for them.

Just before the movers show up, Jason and Michelle are hosting a farewell party for their old friends, many of whom are in similar straits. Charlie, a gifted classical actor, ekes out a living as an office temp; perpetually single, he gets drunk and clowns around at parties like this. George is marginally more successful; his current gig, an audio book reading of a Stephanie Meyer-style novel, is dismissed as "selling soft-core fiction to teenage girls who don't have time to read." Dawn has a job in development at the Museum of the Moving Image, but it brings her little satisfaction. Leanna, like Michelle a writer, is giving it up for a career in interior design.

Their party talk is frank, funny, and laced with 100-proof irony. "I'm looking for a cheese plate of little import," says Michelle, lamenting the creeping food faddism that has become a staple of her daily life. Another friend, Nicole, who takes a laissez-faire approach to motherhood, attacks the notion that if women ruled the world, peace would prevail: "People who think that never read a Park Slope blog about motherhood. Those bitches are not playing around." Dawn, noting the vast dimensions of the social bubble in which they dwell, says, "I went to Guatemala last year, and I met three people from Park Slope and two from Long Island City." Any discussion of politics leaves them feeling paralyzed. "I admit it; I voted for John Edwards," says George. "I thought he had integrity."

Before you dismiss them all as a bunch of complainers with first-world problems -- not for nothing is the vintage served at the party called Whining Baby -- let me add that they are equally frank and unsentimental about their semi-stalled careers, which is why Jason's decision to bail has left a trail of hurt and confusion. This becomes clear when, after several rounds of drinks, the conversation gets just a little bit ugly. Jason, on the defensive, congratulates George on his audio book deal, noting, "You'll be the voice of teenage girls' relationship issues for years. Some of them will even pick the wrong husbands because of you." Speaking of Jason's new job, George replies, "Right. You're going to teach freshman to unlock their jaws and breathe out their feelings." Surveying his guests, Jason adds, "I'll miss moments like these, where the good people of Kings County praise themselves for their own good fortune."

Freeman is not Edward Albee, and this particular dinner party does not devolve into savage, lacerating attacks; everyone is too well-mannered for that. Still, underneath the drinks and the wisecracks, some heartbreaking truths are exposed. Jason, Michelle, and the others are facing the moment when their dreams of creative success are giving way to the prospect of diminished expectations. They know it only gets harder from here on in, and there's a sense in which Jason's departure -- and his extensive justifications for it -- feel like a betrayal. By the time the party winds down in the wee hours, this wound has been delicately, but thoroughly, probed.

That it is easy to remain engaged with these eloquently unhappy, yet entitled, people is a tribute to the director, Kyle Ancowitz, and his cast, who skillfully create the impression that we are watching friends who have known each other forever. As Jason and Michelle, Andrew Schwartz and Susan Louise O'Connor are especially adept at dancing around the conversation that could potentially blow a hole in their marriage. David DelGrosso's George, gives his lines a sharp undertone, turning the party into a pained showdown with Jason. Matthew Trumbull's Charlie is a persuasive portrait of the kind of guy who has played the fool for so long he now does it by rote. Moira Stone revels in each of Nicole's take-no-prisoners comments. There is also nice work from Rebecca Gray Davis (Dawn), Sarah K. Lippman (Leanna), and, as various spouses and dates, Jay Leibowitz, Imran Sheikh, and Marguerite Stimpson. The rest of the production package, including Kerry Lee Chipman's highly recognizably set design, Nicholas Houfek's lighting, and Caroline Berti's costumes, deepens the feeling of authenticity. It all adds up to a tellingly detailed group portrait of intelligent, talented, almost-young people finding themselves at an important crossroads. I haven't seen Matthew Freeman's previous work, but I gather that most of it has been much less naturalistic than Why We Left Brooklyn. If so, then he has found just the right format to tell this funny/sad story.--David Barbour

(5 September 2013)

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