Entertainment

A playwright sets the scene in New York’s living rooms

In the fall of 2020, a young playwright named Matthew Gasda decided to entertain some friends by directing a one-act drama on a grassy hillside in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park. The masked audience quickly realized that what they were seeing was strikingly relatable: Performed on a picnic blanket by seven actors, “Circles” showed a group of pandemic-weary friends meeting over wine one evening in a city park to catch up on their lives .

After the applause, Mr. Gasda, 33, passed around a hat for donations. Then he began planning his next play.

A few months later, in a cool Bushwick backyard, he unveiled Winter Journey, a drama loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Then came “quartet‘, a comedy about two couples swapping partners, which he performed in a TriBeCa apartment. He directed his next play, Ardor, about friends meeting in a loft in Greenpoint for a weekend in the country. He was a long way from Broadway, or even Off Broadway, but he was grateful for the attention.

“I’d been directing plays anonymously in New York for a long time,” he said, “but during the pandemic I became like the rat that survived the nuclear weapons. Suddenly there was no more competition.”

In the spring of 2021, he strayed into a downtown social scene forming on the eastern edge of Chinatown at the intersection of Canal and Division Streets. What he experienced inspired his next work, Dimes Square.

“Dimes Square became the anti-Covid hotspot and so I went there because things were happening there,” Mr Gasda said.

Named after pennies, a restaurant on Canal Street, the microscene was packed with skaters, artists, models, writers, and telegenic 20-year-olds who didn’t seem to have any jobs at all. A hyperlocal print newspaper called The drunk channel gave voice to what was going on.

Mr. Gasda, who lives in Bethlehem, Pa. grew up dreaming of making it in New York threw into the moment and takes on his role as the scene’s turtleneck playwright. And as he worked as a tutor by day to earn a living and immersed himself in Dimes Square at night, he began to envision a play.

Set in a Chinatown loft, “Dimes Square” chronicles the petty underhandedness among a group of selfish artists and media guys. It is filled with references to local haunts such as Bar Clandestino and the Metrograph Theater and its characters These include an arrogant writer who drinks Fernet – Mr Gasda’s favorite liquor – and a scrappy novelist who snorts cocaine with people half his age.

Mr. Gasda added a touch of realism and cast key roles with friends: Bijan Stephen, a journalist and podcast presenter, portraying a frustrated magazine editor; Christian Lorenzen, a literary critic, plays an emaciated Generation X novelist; and Fernanda Amis, whose father is author Martin Amis, plays the daughter of a famous writer.

Since opening in a Greenpoint loft in February, “Dimes Square” has become an underground hit that consistently sells out performances. People watching the show include insiders eager to see their scene on stage, as well as those who have been following them remotely via Instagram. Writers Gary Indiana, Joshua Cohen, Sloane Crosley and Mr. Amis all attended.

The piece scheduled to begin is a Manhattan run in a SoHo apartment on Friday, Mr. Gasda also won his first major write-up, a evaluation by Helen Shaw in New York Magazine’s Vulture, which compared him to Chekhov and declared, “Gasda has proclaimed himself the playwright of the Dimes Square scene.”

After the review went online, Mr Gasda received a text message from a friend on his battered clamshell phone, congratulating him on the fact that he had been called “our Chekhov”. But even as Mr. Gasda gets his shot at success in literary New York, something about the noise surrounding his play unnerves him.

“I’m grateful for the attention, but people who come to see the show seem to think the play is related to the scene and they totally distort that,” he said. “The play is pessimistic about the scene.”

Just before the actors took the stage at a recent performance, viewers sipped cheap red wine and chatted up Twitter gossip surrounding the show. As the lights dimmed, Mr. Gasda, wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches and his usual scarf, reminded his guests to pay for their drinks on Venmo.

After the performance, as the loft was cleared, one viewer, Joseph Hogan, a 29-year-old filmmaker, offered a critique: “The liking for these characters is irrelevant to me,” he said. “What matters to me is whether their insecurities are understandable. And as a person who’s moved to this city from somewhere else and is trying to make it what it is here in New York, I feel like I can relate to them.”

“If they’re not considered likable,” he continued, “then neither am I. And that’s fine with me.”

The play’s cast made their way to their usual bar, Oak & Iron. There, Mr. Gasda maintained a Fernet while Mr. Lorentzen shared a review of the show.

“A journalist came up to me and said she thought you were just another Cassavetes rehash,” Mr. Lorentzen said, referring to John Cassavetes, the well-known indie filmmaker of the 1970s and 1980s. “But afterwards she said to me, ‘No, he gets it. He’s doing his own thing.’”

“I’ve had references for Cassavetes before,” said Mr. Gasda. “But it’s not my job to care what people think. My job is to keep silent and to write.”

He took a sip.

“It’s great that we’re getting attention,” he said, “but it’s not like I’m making any money from it. I still have my job.”

“It reminds me of this story I heard about a guy who saw ‘Einstein on the Beach,'” he continued, referring to the 1976 opera by Philip Glass. “Then the guy had to had his toilet fixed, so he called plumber. The plumber shows up and the guy asks him, “Aren’t you? Philip Glas?’ Glass tells him, ‘Yeah, but I’m not making any money off the show yet.'”

Mr. Gasda’s quest to become a New York playwright began during his teenage years in Bethlehem, where his father was a high school history teacher and his mother was a paralegal. Growing up, he watched Eagles games on TV with his father and heard stories about a grandfather’s days as a steelworker. He became a bookworm, obsessively reading Ulysses and devouring the works of poet John Ashbery and novelist William Gaddis.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Syracuse University, Mr. Gasda boarded a bus to the Port Authority. He spent his first day wandering aimlessly until he stumbled upon Caffe Reggio, a Greenwich Village institution that was once a hangout for bohemians and poets from the Beat Generation. And there he felt at home even among the New York University students doing their homework. He soon moved into an apartment in Bushwick and began his reinvention.

He wrote on a Smith Corona electric typewriter. He rocked the scarf and turtleneck to literary parties. He hung in the stacks of the Strand and made Caffe Reggio his office, where he wrote parts of over a dozen plays. To earn his rent, he taught English at a charter school in Red Hook and worked as a debating coach at Spence, the Upper East Side private school. Now a college prep tutor, he lives in a book-filled apartment in Brooklyn’s East Flatbush neighborhood.

But even after a decade in the city, apart from friends and family, he could only get a few people to join Check out his work — until his fortunes changed during the pandemic, when young New Yorkers tired of Netflix turned to live theater.

Now in addition to the second run of “Dimes Square”, another one of Mr. Gasda’s pieces, “Minotaur,” set to open soon in a small venue in Dumbo. An early and intimate rendition of the production included actress Dasha Nekrasova, who has a recurring role on “Succession” and co-hosts the provocative politics and culture podcast “Red Fear.”

After a recent “Minotaur” rehearsal in Midtown, Ms. Nekrasova and another cast member, Cassidy Grady, huddled in the street to smoke a cigarette while Mr. Gasda chatted with them. They discussed the debut novel of the moment, Sean Thor Conroe’s Fuccboi, as well as the new play that was taking shape.

“‘Minotaur’ is a kind of Ibsenian drama,” Ms. Nekrasova said. “I’m excited for Gasda as he represents a burgeoning interest in post-Covid theater in the city.”

Mr. Gasda slipped into a nearby sports bar. He ordered a glass of Fernet, and as he reflected on the upcoming performance of “Dimes Square,” he suggested that audiences should think differently about his play.

“Ultimately, ‘Dimes Square’ is a comedy,” he said. “I’m not trying to send people to see therapists. And I’m not saying I’m better than the people in my play.”

“On the other side of the piece, it’s about aspiring in New York,” he added. “So it’s also about something universal.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/31/style/matthew-gasda-dimes-square.html A playwright sets the scene in New York’s living rooms

Isaiah Colbert

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