In 1918, soon after her arrival in New York, the 21-year-old Dawn Powell sent a letter to a friend. “Everything whirls around you all the time and you grab what you want and then let it revolve again,” she wrote. “It makes me dizzy to think of all the warm friendships and Passionate Affairs I’ve been through in three months. . . . You recognize and love it all as Life—the World—Humanity—whatever it is.”
We may be older and harder of heart and not newly sprung from a women’s college in the Midwest, as Powell was, but New York can turn any of us into a dizzy young thing. The buildings’ splendor, the traffic’s thrum, the significant glances exchanged on the subway—it can all seem romantic, erotic.
Yet as quickly as that love can ripen, it can rot. Two new plays, Brett C. Leonard’s Unconditional and Aaron Landsman’s Open House, concern unhappy NYC amours. Leonard’s describes unwholesome intrigues among nine New Yorkers; Landsman’s portrays a failed relationship with the city itself.
A production of the LAByrinth Theater Company mounted at the Public, Unconditional continues that group’s predilection for messy interactions and multiracial casts. Under Mark Wing-Davey’s direction, the stage splits into two or three sections. Spectators seated in front don’t always see what those seated above or those opposite do. Lights and panels shift. Multiple scenes occur at once.
This staging hints at disconnection, as does Leonard’s rather dreary script: An African-American man lynches his boss; a white man murders an employee; a young couple pushes a sex game too far; adultery abounds. Much of the material is unpleasant, much is self-important, and some smacks of macho posturing, but when Leonard relaxes, he can write scenes that are nicely observed and often very funny. Witness a man’s attempts to rouse his one-night stand from slumber: “Sweetheart? Can you hear me? Are you sleeping? Sweetheart? I have chlamydia. You hear? I lied when I told you I had money. I like cock. I’m still in love with my wife. Alright, c’mon, let’s go, c’mon—time ta get up.”
Unconditional includes many actors with extensive film and television credits. Their styles, combined with the montages and underscoring Leonard demands, suggest a play that might prefer itself as a film. Open House, however, couldn’t be anything but a work for the stage. Or, in this case, 20-some stages. A production of the Foundry Theatre, Open House performs in a different home every night of its run. The houses range from lavish penthouses to cramped studios, across all five boroughs.
On a recent evening, it played in “the last unrenovated building in Tribeca,” according to its owner. Upon arriving, everyone filled out a form that asked about their incomes, resources, and whether they have “an exit strategy.” We settled onto cushions, couches, and stools to observe the relationship dramas of Jane (Heidi Schreck) and Rick (Paul Willis). We also listened to the slightly sinister pitches of a real-estate agent named Three (Raul Castillo).
After the questionnaires and the introductions, Open House threatens to veer into more conventional territory. Sprawled out on a couch, Rick and Jane parse their urban woes. Perhaps they can pay the rent if they abuse their Discover card. Maybe they should take an “unlocking your sacred sexual connection workshop.”
But it transpires that as many ups and downs as Rick and Jane may have endured, the city has suffered much worse. They are shills, embedded in Three’s campaign to lure us into returning to a New York beset by ecological and political disasters—floods, gangs, electrical surges. He’s selling apartments like the one we’re in now. He can even offer a sweetheart deal: mortgages at a mere 19 and a quarter.
Both Leonard and Landsman take inspiration from a love of New York, but each seems compelled to present it as a misery, a torment. New York, New York, they suggest, is a hell of a town.