Only a douchebag would order the Thai mango sausage instead of the foie gras. So we learn from Doug, the surly hipster tending bar in [Porto], Kate Benson’s sweet, thoughtful new play. Now at the Bushwick Starr in a production directed by Lee Sunday Evans, the poetic, slightly surreal drama meditates on habit and indulgence and the social and economic structures shaping our private lives.
Benson’s protagonist, Porto (Julia Sirna-Frest), inhabits the familiar, troubling terrain of a gentrifying Brooklyn lit by Edison bulbs and decorated in white tile and polished wood. Between work and home lies her haven, a deliberately clichéd upscale bar proffering artisanal cocktails and free-range Spanish goose. Each day, Porto contemplates imposing discipline — forgoing her regular barstool and glass of malbec for healthy food and exercise — and each day she takes her seat before the expectant Doug (Noel Joseph Allain), who presides
magisterially over the consumption
habits of his clientele.
Though Porto is a solitary being, she is accompanied by a disembodied narrator, voiced by the playwright, gently commenting on the character’s decisions. Sometimes the narrator confronts Porto: Why doesn’t she seek adventure, maybe a romantic encounter with that guy nursing a Hennepin at the bar? Other times, the unseen voice digresses to meditate on, say, the sausage-making process, or the way factory farms fatten pigs, gorging their bodies until they’re ready to reproduce or be slaughtered. (Is Porto, indulging in a perfectly medium-rare steak, a human corollary to that pig?)
But what’s mostly at stake is the relationship of pleasure to daily life. Do sensual comforts expand our inner worlds? Or does succumbing (again) to that perfect glass of wine mentally straitjacket us? When Porto does depart from routine, bringing that Hennepin-drinker home with her, she wakes up to a dreamlike dialogue between Doug and the bar’s waiter, temporarily playing the roles of Gloria Steinem and Simone de Beauvoir, and fiercely debating whether brewing coffee for her guest would mean playing into a stereotypical feminine role.
[Porto], something of a chamber piece, lacks some of the scope of Benson’s and Evans’s Obie-winning 2015 collaboration, A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes. Here, though Benson’s characteristic, delightfully surreal flourishes surface — at one point, human-size rabbits admonish Porto to start internet dating — they don’t expand the theatrical world in the same way. But this choice appears deliberate: This is a play about small pleasures and griefs and the bigger consequences they signal. Do our indulgences obscure both riskier personal possibilities and the socioeconomic forces underpinning our unexamined pleasures? The beautiful bar, Benson takes care to remind us, inhabits the former site of a medical-supply shop, a marker of the gentrification unfolding offstage, all around the Starr’s Bushwick home, and across the borough.
Evans’s intimate production serves the play’s delicacy, and Kristen Robinson’s set offers richly detailed glimpses of Doug’s bar and Porto’s home. The ensemble cast, playing both individuals and recognizable types, delivers warm, sympathetic portraits of figures that, to a Brooklyn audience, are familiar: evoking our own daily lives, with our own unexamined habits and pleasures, awaiting us after the lights go down.
By Kate Benson
The Bushwick Starr
Through February 4