The New Sincerity
At Theater Wit
By Dan Zeff
Chicago– For people who want sociological relevance with their playgoing, I suppose “The New Sincerity” has something to say about the millennial generation, those people born in the United States from roughly 1980 to the end of the 20th century. For people happy to settle for a beautifully written, terrifically staged play (myself included), “The New Sincerity” at Theater Wit is an A-list show.
“The New Sincerity” (the ambiguity of the title becomes evident as the play proceeds) was written by Alena Smith and attracted much positive reaction when it premiered two years ago. In physical scale it’s a chamber work, four characters, a single set, and a playing time of an intermissionless 85 minutes. But within those confines the play touches on a stimulating and entertaining collection of issues that should send the attentive viewers out into the night with their minds buzzing.
The location is New York City in the office of a trendy issues-driven journal called Asymptope, headed by a 32-year old editor named Benjamin. Character number two is Rose, a talented 29-year old writer trying to get a foothold in the New York City journalism scene. She is making a strong claim for attention with a long feature just published in the journal. Natasha is the publication’s intern, treated rather shabbily by Benjamin. The final character is Django, a free spirit with a strong whiff of 1960’s Flower Child about him.
Photo Credit: Charles Osgood
What churns the plot is a large protest in a nearby park. We never are told what the protesters are protesting, but it obviously is anti-establishment. The protest is part of what is called the Occupy movement, a term unfamiliar to me but apparently a strategy in which protesters take over a site, like a sit-in, to draw attention to their grievances. Django is one of the earliest members of the protest but refuses to be called a leader. The protesters renounce leaders and accompanying power struggles. The protesters are all equal in their own eyes, sharing the responsibilities and along the way engaging in an extremely free flow of sexual activity.
Benjamin at first comes across as a steadfast idealist, rigorously dedicating himself and his journal to the cause, whatever it may be. But Benjamin is also a bit of a sleaze, hitting on Rose even though he is engaged to Sadie, a young woman on a Fulbright in Berlin. Sadie is really a fifth character in the play even though she never makes an onstage appearance. If the other characters are to be believed, Sadie is a handful, possessive and bitchy.
In a string of scenes that cover several months, we hear some deliciously comic dialogue embedded in the big matter at hand, the protest in park. Gradually we witness Benjamin morphing from a stalwart revolutionary into a self-justifying seeker after power and recognition. There are two big moments for him, one in which CNN picks up a film clip of the Occupy movement and the other in which Benjamin and Sadie get a feature story in the New York Times. For Benjamin, CNN and the Times are the peak of his journalistic career, never mind sacrificing matters of integrity and dedication to making society a better place.
Poor Rose has the misfortune to fall for the charismatic Benjamin, who coolly blows her off at the end of the play, proving that idealism and fair play are the first men down when self interest intrudes. Natasha is a kind of Greek chorus, a breezy young woman who chirps in with opinions from time to time, vastly enriching the comic content of the play.
The playwright takes a discouraging view of the protest or Occupy movement, in her play and by extension protests at any time. At first the protest burns hot with passion and dedication, but as the days pass and nothing changes, the energy level falls and the true believers quietly slip away. Near the end if the play, Rose comments “The park is empty and cold like nothing ever happened.” It’s the saddest line in the play and maybe one of the saddest lines we’ll hear in any play this season.
“The New Sincerity” starts out slowly and I feared we were in for an evening in the tiresome company of naive and self-important people wasting their time fighting unwinnable battles against their unnamed adversary. But the intensity gradually ratchets up as personal and romantic issues get entangled with the shift in the protest cause away from selfless idealism and more toward ego inflating and a lust for fame and power. For Benjamin and Sadie, no righteous cause can compete with a flattering article in the New York Times.
The audience should recognize it’s in for a special evening upon entering the intimate theater and seeing the stunning realistic set designed by Adam Veness, a two-level office with what looks like a diorama of the New York City cityscape seen from the windows.
The cast draws from the top of the inexhaustible pyramid of quality young actors who populate the thriving Chicago storefront scene. Maura Kidwell is wonderful as Rose, the most sympathetic character in the story and the one who takes the biggest fall as she watches Benjamin placidly sell out to Sadie and to fame. Erin Long is a continual delight as the irrepressible Natasha, who never leans on kookiness to deliver her richly comic portrait.
Photo Credit: Charles Osgood
Alex Stein is appropriately annoying as irresponsible hippy Django until the character takes on dramatic weight as the story moves toward its conclusion. Drew Shirley is perfect as the character you love to hate, both in his treatment of Rose and Natasha and in his self justifying grab for celebrityhood on the backs of anonymous protesters who presumably at least had the courage of their convictions.
Director Jeremy Wechsler keeps the pace brisk, orchestrating a natural flow of all the comic and dramatic conflicts. He has joined with his impeccable ensemble to create a staging that seems like it couldn’t have happened any other way, maybe the definition of successful directing. The production also gets superior assistance from lighting designer Sarah Hughey, costume designer Izumi Inaba, and sound designer Sarah Putts. Properties designer Vivian Knouse has assembled an office so inviting that looks like it could be rented out to a business client as soon as the show closes.
“The New Sincerity” is the work of an important new voice in the American theater. The play didn’t grab me as a social statement as much as it did as an exploration of relationships among an unconventional but enticing group of characters. Erin Long was the revelation in the Natasha role that could so easily descend into silliness. A local theater is reviving “Born Yesterday” this season and I suspect that Ms. Long would be a marvel in the female lead. But at least we have her, and her three colleagues, delivering the dramatic and comic goods in this really invigorating play into next month.
“The New Sincerity” runs through April 17 at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont Avenue. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $36. Call 773 975 8150 or visit www.TheaterWit.org.
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars March 2016
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.
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