Unlike nearly every playwright I know, Ben Gassman grew up in New York City. “Till I was six I lived in central Queens, a neighborhood called Rego Park,” he tells me. “I remember getting stung by a bee on my ass on the wood floor in my panel-created room just off the kitchen in our apartment. But mostly I grew up in Eastern Queens, a neighborhood called Hollis Hills.”
I was also stung on the ass by a bee in my youth, but it wasn’t in Queens. Ben is a real, native New Yorker. He knows that in Chinatown there used to be a chicken in an arcade (which is still there—the arcade, not the chicken) who would dance and play with a ball. He knows that you used to be able to smoke and play pool in the back of the Blimpie’s on Chambers Street, but now it’s a Subway. Nonetheless, growing up that far from the City proper—that is, the confines of Manhattan—created some conflict with his own feeling of being authentically a New Yorker. “Hollis Hills is the kind of neighborhood with backyards and decks that makes you or at—least made me—want to prove you are of the city, the real and gritty city,” he confesses, “and I spent a lot of high school trying to do that in various ways. So, until I came back from college, I think, it encouraged me to posture, to angle, to pose a bit, to present myself as more urban.”
The slippery nature of authenticity and how we project or embody it is woven throughout all of Gassman’s work. In Queens Style Hobo Story, Tank comments on how hopping trains at the Canadian Pacific Yard in Conklin is so “real.” In Botte di Farro, the character Him struggles with the authenticity of behaving like himself at sleepaway camp while also hiding the experience because camp makes him “uncool.” Haircuts for Men and Boys deals with the changing cultural landscape of Astoria:
But you work in diner, Kostya. When I come I work in fine dining Armenian restaurant.
Oh, so you better than me? He think he better than the boss, kid, cause he never work in diner. Greek people we don’t work in Armenian restaurant, Artur, we work in Greek diner. I never even heard of fine dining Armenian restaurant. You sure you not making this up, Artur? And why they gonna want Uzbek guy working in Armenian restaurant? Very strange story, Artur.
Being oneself, being true to one’s cultural heritage, having exciting experiences: these things give a sense of authenticity in Gassman’s plays. It is also apparent that Gassman’s ear for language has been perfectly developed from years of listening to the New Yorkers on the streets, as well as the foreigners and tourists atop the double decker buses of the City’s tour conglomerates.
Authenticity becomes problematic in Gassman’s newest play The Downtown Loop, which premiers at 3LD in October. The Tour Guide, the 20-something main character of Loop, doesn’t care at all about facts. He hopes to create for his tourists the authentic sensibility of New Yorkers and their City. This can result in some pretty wild tangents with a complicated relationship to fact, but they always give a potent verbal embodiment of the City, both its history and its present:
On your right you see whatever you see. Something vastly different. I see the one-legged Mohawk iron worker who still managed to finish laying crossbeams on the 37th floor in the 11th month, 21 days after a beam had fallen and crushed his leg on the 36th floor. I’m always looking at the 37th floor thinking about old Hops On One Foot—Fred by Christian name. So baptized by his minister father in the church they were forced into. How Fred’s father really came into his own in that church.
Gassman’s an experienced tour guide himself, so I asked him to take me on a walking tour to get a sense of his relationship to the city and the life of his main character from The Downtown Loop. Meghan Finn, Loop’s director, and Sam Soghor, actor and inspiration for the Trainee character in Loop, joined us.
In New York City, following things as they turn from authentic to inauthentic is impossible. The constantly changing neighborhood borders. The gentrification of neighborhoods. Hipster culture, which has made the struggle for originality into both the highest art and the lowest triviality. While we were blocking the corner of Mott and Grand waiting for the light to change, our group was berated by a couple of old ladies, who shouted, “This is our neighborhood! Shouldn’t we have the right to walk down the street?” Soghor, with that special charm that his doppelgänger exhibits in Loop, asked them how long they had lived in the neighborhood. They were the fourth generation of Italians to live in that neighborhood, and each had presided over another three generations of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. These ladies are the real thing in Little Italy, but when one looks around, it’s increasingly apparent that Little Italy is actually more like Little Shanghai, or Little Saigon. Tourism has made Little Italy into an ahistorical anomaly.
I wanted to know more about how tourists perceive the anomalies they help create, so I ask Ben about the average individual he takes on tours. “It’s no doubt the lowest common denominator on the bus,” he explains “‘How many murders are there in the Bronx? How many muggings?’ they ask, thinking that’s still the way the City is. Many just want to see from the top of the bus.” Finn adds, “I have to admit, before doing this show I’d never taken a double decker bus tour of the City, and it’s a completely bizarre way to view the streets you walk down every day. It has a very National Geographic kind of feel, like you’re watching the City species in their natural habitat or something.”
People go on safaris for “authentic experiences” that they can then use strategically at cocktail parties or backyard BBQs to regale attentive crowds. The Tour Guide deals with these same safari-mentality thrill seekers—only this time they’ll return home to share how they brushed up against THE CITY. In the Loop’s production, the audience takes the place of these tourists, sitting atop a bus-like set with video screens displaying the sights as the virtual bus meanders through the boroughs. The Tour Guide cares less about the accuracy of his tour than its “sensibility”—so who cares if there’s a little fudging if he communicates the real soul of the City? Especially when considered against the city’s maddening accepted “facts”:
George Washington with his wooden teeth and his cherry tree who took the oath of office as first President of these United States on April 30th, 1789 on those very steps which were there in 1789 but burned down some time later and then were rebuilt maybe three feet south, maybe four feet to the southeast.
The absolutely, positively, 100 percent certified spot on the steps where Washington was first sworn in was probably a couple of feet from where the building stands now.
The Tour Guide knows that everyone wants to be a part of New York, to know the City, this thing that has been repackaged and sold over and over again. The tourists want a personal connection to it, to feel like a New Yorker. The Tour Guide knows that fulfilling their wishes will also lead to a more generous offering in his tip jar. Nonetheless, he talks about the City’s less savory aspects, waxing poetic on the signage along 5th Avenue and the dog shit smeared on the sidewalk underneath. He says you have to contend with the insides to get the City. At one point, he even encourages his tourists to off themselves—perhaps mocking their idea of how New Yorkers really behave.
You’d like me to speak slower? To go slower? You missed something?
Um, okay…I…I guess…I don’t know…kill yourself?
This is how I speak. This is how I go. I’m licensed. I’m professional. You’re just on vacation. I’m taking this hatchet off my belt. I’m setting it down beside me. Kill yourself. Please.
But this play is not about a champion of the real New York City. As Gassman puts it, “It’s nothing but low grade nostalgia for the Tour Guide, nostalgia for what the tourists haven’t seen. ‘Remember when there were towers in N.Y.C.? Boy, those were the good ol’ days.’ He’s pointing to the thing that used to be here. Like saying, ‘You weren’t here when anything was ever good.’” The authentic New York experience, it seems, involves a bout of exclusivity from the Tour Guide.
Gassman and the Tour Guide love the City. Both Gassman and Soghor, who is also an N.Y.C. native, said they would proudly defend the City to the death. I asked if Loop is a love letter to the city, a genre that Gassman had previously expressed disdain for. “Sure. Most things about the City are, like, you know, love letters,” he says. “The Downtown Loop is a love letter. It’s a love letter to the city on infinite repeat. And infinite repeat and love letters. Weird combination. I believe and sincerely hope it’s a play that gives every person who sees it the brief unabashed confirmation—and corollary swag headrush—that she is a New Yorker, a tiny but integral, maybe only fleeting, but integral, part of this beautiful monster, which is exactly the feeling that the bus tours by their very nature can never cultivate.”
Despite that turn towards the romantic, Gassman insists that, like Mookie throwing the garbage can through the pizza shop window in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, there has to be a Fuck You moment for it to be a good love letter. Even on the best days, you can’t avoid stepping in the shit of a Great Dane, or walking blissfully onto an empty subway car before that human smell hits you right in the olfactory bulb, or regularly running into that ex that you’re still in love with but who’s engaged to some idiot in private equity. Without that moment, and without it happening again and again to people all over the City, no love letter to N.Y.C. would be authentic.
The Downtown Loop, by Ben Gassman, directed by Meghan Finn, with video design by Jared Mezzocchi, runs October 15 – November 16 at 3LD Art and Technology Center, Studio B (80 Greenwich Street, Manhattan). Presented by Teeth of Tooth Atelier. Executive Produced by 3-Legged Dog Productions. For further info, visit: www.3ldnyc.org. For tickets ($25), visit www.ovationtix.com or call 866-811-4111.
PAUL KETCHUM is a playwright and performer living in Brooklyn. His plays have been seen at the Bushwick Starr, Little Theater at Dixon Place, Brooklyn College, and the University of Denver. He is a graduate with an MFA in Playwriting from Mac Wellman's program at Brooklyn College.