New York is no slouch in the self-romanticizing department. But if you had to pick one capital of nostalgia in a city suffused with it, it might be Coney Island—perpetually in decline from a ribald peak that maybe never really existed. David Johnston’s new play, Coney—now running at the New Ohio, in a production directed by Gary Shrader—keeps the rose-colored glasses firmly in place, assembling a menagerie of eccentrics to appreciate the closing hours of a Coney summer.
In vignettes linked by the thinnest of through-lines—a worried father wanders in and out searching for his cranky teen daughter—we meet a coterie of oddballs from Coney central casting, united by their love of the area’s recondite charms and their urgent need to vent emotional turmoil in monologues. A pair of old kvetchers from the neighborhood—perhaps they really hail from Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach—mix lewd appraisals of passing female anatomies with wistful ruminations on mortality. A trivia-mad nerd tries to seduce his date by spitting nonstop Coney Facts (John Cage and Sun Ra did a concert right here! The closing sequence of The Warriors was filmed here, too!) Two young carnies in love try to balance the demands of marginal showbiz with various personal difficulties. Of course, there’s also a scene from their tatty sideshow psychic act—and the less said about the screeching human oddity from Texas, the better.
Throughout, characters say the things people say about Coney Island: The neighborhood is getting better, but Coney’s getting worse. No one neglects to mention the evil developers hovering on the horizon, waiting to nail the Freak for good and import the yuppie hordes. And, naturally, the whole thing culminates in fisticuffs at the peculiar animal tent. In the end, Coney is faithful to different aspects of the Coney Island experience: It takes way too long to get there, the place is full of loud weirdoes, the attractions are underwhelming, and you’re kind of glad to get on the train and go home.