INDIALOGUE

Tunneling through Density: Ben Gassman's NYC

In a delightful scene from Ben Gassman’s unproduced play Haircuts for Men & Boys, written in 2010, a guy walks into a barbershop of Greek ownership in Queens. He avoids the blind Cuban who shaved him the last time he came for a visit and saddles up to get his cut from the proprietor Gus—or Costa or Kostya, depending on the interlocutor—instead. Immediately he’s subjected to the playful man-inquisition recognizable to anyone who still goes to an old-school barbershop and not those faux-retro outposts popular in Williamsburg that proudly hawk espresso drinks and $20 pomades in addition to a $50 trim. The guy, referred to by profession (tournant—that’s four steps removed from head chef), tries to explain the cuisine of his new hipster establishment to Gus and his “modern” grandson Pete:

 

GUS

What the fuck is this, new Mediterranean? This souvlaki parmigian?

PETE

It’s called fusion, Papou. Mixing the best of different traditions. Fresh ingredients. There’s this thing they’re calling it New Brooklyn. I’m telling you the neighborhood is growing up.

GUS

This not fucking Brooklyn. This Queens. The owner, where he from?

TOURNANT

A big restaurant group owns it, but the project manager is Lebanese. And the front of the house manager is gonna be a Greek guy actually who grew up in the neighborhood, but he’s not on site yet.

GUS

So it’s Arab or it’s Greek? Maybe Cypriot place you mean? I getting very confused.

TOURNANT

No. It’s a mix of all different Mediterranean cuisines.

GUS

So souvlaki parmigian?

TOURNANT

No.

GUS

Where’s the chef from?

TOURNANT

She’s Venezuelan, but she trained in France and worked in Italy and Japan.

GUS

I getting dizzy, kid.

TOURNANT

(laughing) Yeah. . . . I just work there.

“Dizzy,” to coin Gus’s phrase, is a perfect descriptor for the state conjured by Ben’s work, exemplified here by the comedic confusions caused by a “fusion”-based world. Certainly there are other adjectives as well—veracious and verbacious come to mind. A native New Yorker, Ben’s ear is ever-tuned to the multi-ethnic music of the outer boroughs where tribalism is rendered in loving intricacy and then further complicated by generational misunderstanding and the inevitability of gentrification. Ben traffics in the disorientations produced by these competing conflicts; his texts are studies in garrulousness, tangential wisdom, and people-poetry hunger.

As a former classmate of Ben’s at Brooklyn College—where we both studied with playwright Mac Wellman—I was introduced to Ben’s work in the fall of 2008 or the spring of 2009. Ben was a white Jewish boy from Queens with a grainy hip-hop inflected voice, in some ways reminiscent of one of his idols, the spoken-word artist Danny Hoch. His intelligence manifested itself in chronic self-inventory, a present looking-inward on display. He jogged my memory of the time we shared in workshop with this description of an early play: “. . . it was about kids writing graffiti in subway tunnels and an underground world of Jewish mystics and a dead kid's bar mitzvah &elipse; it had a lot to do with this kabbalistic concept of tunneling that I don't really understand. Basically the righteous get tunneled to Jerusalem when the messiah comes . . . in the play of course that can't happen until Palestine is liberated . . . blah blah blah. But it's mostly like these stupid boys who want to write their names on walls and get high.” This kernel of plot speaks to themes Ben continues to explore in his work: how to inherit and preserve a culture while acknowledging its shortcomings; the co-existence of political seriousness and joy; fraternal allegiance and the formation of masculinity. It’s this last point that brought Ben and I into deeper conversation. He invited me to take on the role of Professor Mel in a workshop of his latest play Independent Study (opening at The Tank on November 1)—a kind of intellectual thriller straddling university and global politics—when it was still in its formative stages as a draft. While we did not belabor my transness, I felt as though Ben was opening his aperture by untethering the character’s masculinity from biological maleness to make a space for new kinds of relationships in his work. Currently, the part of Mel is being played by the fine performer Kelly Bartnik, a ciswoman, but I appreciate Ben’s interest in diversifying his casting paradigm to reflect our contemporary gender landscape. Writing and thinking intersectionality is one ethical step toward scrambling the narratives that imprison our storytelling. Leaning into the difficulty of particularity as Ben does in Independent Study might make it his most “grown-up” work to date.

In preparation for my writing this preview, Ben sent me a large and exhaustive digital parcel of work, ranging from his first play—A Queens Style Hobo Story—written in 2005 as an undergraduate at Binghamton University to shorter experiments staged at Dixon Place to his cult hit Sam’s Tea Shack, featuring the affable stream-of-consciousness driven performer Sam Soghor musing on everything from his competitive memories of high school classmate Lin Manuel Miranda (creator of megahit Hamilton) to raising his son Elias to speculations on the origins of his “Semitic nomad people.” I attended a production of this show directed by Meghan Finn last fall, also at the Tank, as a special onstage guest, joined by comic Becky Yamamoto. There were many snacks and friends in the small audience, and it was hard to tease out where Sam ended and Ben began. Over email, Ben explained writing for his friend, equal parts transcription and invention, a feat generous and collaborative as they explored, in his words: “what are the Jews, who are the Jews?; are the Jews and the safety/comfort of the Jews (writ large—yes problematic) in the cityspace a reasonable gauge of the health and safety of other non-domcult[1] communities in the cityspace and of its overall health[?]” I don’t know if Ben is a moralist per say, but he does seem to care about doing the right thing—and doing the right thing as a dramatically imbued coming-of-age ritual.

Independent Study stages several of these intersecting rites of passage, as a professor and student find each other unlikely mirrors in an increasingly claustrophobic world, the product of media overload and the cyber demolition of black and white categories like right and wrong, all satirically rendered in a heightened lingo of Ben’s ambitious invention which extends to made-up YouTube personages and cloying Facebook cutaways. Professor Mel is GG’s mentor at a fictional corporate-global university (a coy amalgam of a tech school and NYU, perhaps). GG is a second-generation immigrant struggling with her schoolwork and tensions at home and with her community. We never meet GG’s mother; most prominently her domestic life is rendered in scenes with her rough-talking brother Bozo, a quasi-Lyft driver who seems to mostly care about making money and getting laid. Meanwhile, Professor Mel has their own sibling frustrations with which to contend. Brother Zeke is a fledgling yoga instructor pursuing his birthright abroad in Israel-approximate Yaahna. Zeke’s politics are abhorrent to Mel, yet Zeke does not fail to remind Mel that they too are exploiting a position of privilege as an instructor at the global university. Mel might talk a good game, but at times they appear to hide behind an intellectual persona in lieu of facing the actual difficulties that come from owning feelings alongside political frameworks. The professor is haunted by failed love; more pressing: they are haunted by their own limitations to change the world from a compromised position within the neoliberal economy. 

For me, the play is most thrilling in its depiction of the student-teacher relation. Professor Mel and GG banter, argue and test each other in verbal tete-a-tetes that will be familiar to anyone who has practiced professional pedagogy, especially at the collegiate level. GG attempts to find some respite from pain through education, but vicious discourses on and off-line haunt her pursuit of the farcical “American dream.” In the play’s most beautifully stark juxtaposition, GG’s isolation is slowly rendered against an out-of-time underscoring delivered by a Hate Chorus resembling 4chan trolls. She’s paying Professor Mel a casual visit to chat about a loaned book, a flimsy pretense for her inarticulable need to connect: 

PROF

Two Trinkets and Mother Earth? . . . I love the idiosyncratic detail. Some of it is so bizarre. It has all the signage of a completely unique thinking landscape.

GG

So boring. No offense.

PROF

To each their own. You’re giving me a better sense of what to recommend next time.

GG

Yeah. Thanks.

GG stands there. Prof stands there. 

HATE CHORUS

I did it for the white race. To save the white nation. From the niggers and kikes.
I did it for the caliphate.

GG opens her arms for a hug.
Prof hugs her, at slight distance.
They stand facing each other.

I did it because strong men are not respected anymore.
I did it because I always knew I was supposed to do something great and everything I tried people got in the way of my greatness. I did it because I was tired of people getting in the way.

GG

You have something to recommend now?

PROF

Hmmm. I’m deep in reading for my own work. I don’t think Luana’s state formation, it’s anything you...how about you take this book by Rudoux. It’s tricky stuff, but read a few pages, the chapter Cosmopolis Then, Cosmopolis Now, and see if you can get into it.

GG

Cool. Thanks. I’ll give it back.

PROF

Whenever.

GG

Uh. Ok. Bye.

PROF

Later, GG.

GG

Uh. But. Wait.

HATE CHORUS

I did it because I was bullied.

GG

Uh, but really thanks. I mean not just for the book, but. Uh.

This morning when you asked how my day was, when I saw you in the hall, well, when I woke up this morning I felt really shitty. Uh. Since winter break. Pretty shitty. Uh.

Personal stuff.

HATE CHORUS

I did it cause I’m sick of the white kids and the black kids all calling me Chink. I’m not even fucking Chinese.

GG

And you asked how my day was and I said bad. And I turned around. And figured that was it. But then I turned back and you were still there. And you were like, why? I know it’s simple shit. But. That...

That’s cool. That made me. Thank you. I was in a better mood.

PROF

Good. I’m glad.

GG

So, uh, yeah, thanks for letting me ramble about CS and whatever.

PROF

Sure. Anytime.

 

The stilted conversation exposes two individuals on the cusp of intimacy which grows grotesque in all that must remain unspoken. The bitternesses of racism and xenophobia would pit student and teacher against each other were it not for some mutual love of learning, the suspensions of disbelief and compromise necessary to maintain dialogue through disparity. Independent Study takes the work of education seriously—and education as a two-way street—even as it sometimes gently mocks the intricacies of acadamese. Ben, a teacher for eight years, knows the jargon well enough to critique its obscurity. Yet conversations of inquiry still possess a gorgeous and singular rhythm, hard for Professor Mel and GG to sustain, as the tensions of difference intrude upon their consciousnesses. The need for contact is palpable, mediated as the exchange at the barbershop by circumscribed roles which accommodate a precarious script. There is no retreat from complexity. In Ben’s worlds, we must learn to appreciate the dense.



Independent Study, by Ben Gassman, directed by Ran Xia, runs November 1 – 17 at The Tank (312 W. 36th Street, 1st Floor). For tickets and further information: www.thetanknyc.org.

Contributor

Jess Barbagallo

Jess Barbagallo is currently acting in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Lyric Theatre. Additionally, he works as an adjunct professor at New York University and is a contributing writer at Artforum.

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