In a room in Greenpoint, in a loft that’s also a DIY performance space, a pair of Gen Over-Its are bummed on a couch. “We are living through the dumbest time in human history,” says Nate, a musician trying to ooze away from his affair with Iris. Anyone would: Iris is selfish and self-regarding and longs “to be anesthetized.” But maybe Nate loves Iris. He seems bored by her self-destructiveness but then abruptly confesses to passion, just as she starts her own emotional slip-slide away. Their conversation — wrong-footed, avoidant, and then skinlessly mortifying — stops as another bunch of people pour into the room. They’ve been out buying Fernet.
Matthew Gasda’s Dimes Square likes this trick enough that it plays it several times. Characters with complex relationship histories find themselves at a precipice — usually tipping away from or toward sex — and then a tide of scenesters sweep in to wash away the moment. Conversations about who’s getting drugs, who’s getting TV deals, who’s going to a pop-up (“If I have to go to another pop-up, it’s going to be as an active shooter”) swamp the merely personal. Fernet also comes up a lot. It’s a telling shorthand: Nothing establishes that a person is trying to shop their way into being cool like drinking Fernet. As much contempt as Gasda’s media-savvy characters have for “influencers,” they wear influence on their sleeves. They believe that borrowing taste from a book or a Cassavetes movie is better than borrowing it from Instagram. Of course, it’s all still imitation and pose.
Gasda has appointed himself dramatist of the Dimes Square scene, a loose jumble of young artists and writers and fashion figures who are the city’s latest wave of soi-disant downtownistas. When it comes to portraiture, theater was all that was left: The much-profiled scene already has its own newspaper (The Drunken Canal) and podcasts (both literary and dirtbaggy) and features in magazines like these ones here. There’s a flavor of capital-R Romanticism, of intellectual performance, of apolitical YOLO flânerie. Gasda’s eye is certainly contemptuous. “It’s a bunch of social climbers railing coke at 4 a.m., shitting on their so-called friends,” says one character, and since the play mainly consists of just that, we believe her.
Gasda sets his play over several days in a Chinatown loft belonging to the wealthy Brit Stefan (Max MacDonald), whose rivalry with the filmmaker Terry (Conor Hall) forms the play’s obscured nucleus. Iris and Nate are peripheral, even more than Terry’s filmmaking collaborator Bora (Eunji Lim) and Stefan’s cousin Liv (Fernanda Amis) and his college-age girlfriend Ashley (Helena Dreyer). There are a few characters whose orbit seems even farther out, which gives them the required perspective for commentary. These include Rosie (Cassidy Grady), who says the biting thing about social climbers, and two Gen-X writers, Chris (Bob Laine) and Dave, who arrive late to the party but want a lot of attention. Gasda’s version of star-casting is giving Christian Lorentzen — New York’s onetime book critic and a grumpy literary-world provocateur — the delicious role of Dave, a curmudgeon who snipes at others while trying to get his storklike frame to fit behind the youngsters’ coffee table. Amateur performers always create a frisson of danger onstage; Lorentzen’s frisson includes our concern about whether or not his kneecaps will make it.
Again and again, these couch-hangout scenes, artfully arranged to seem naturalistic and random, actually point to the central battle of Stefan versus Terry. Stefan — rich, shallow, rewarded, secretly unbookish — despises and needs Terry, who has actually done the reading Stefan pretends to do. Terry, for his part, feels both artistically and literally cuckolded by Stefan. The play’s sympathies clearly lie with Terry, who, we’re told, takes himself seriously and is capable of creating beauty. The girls (and they do call themselves girls) can be painters (Rosie) or bad poets (Iris) or students (Ashley) or cinematographers (Bora), but their conflicts and conversations revolve around sex. In Gasda’s version of the New York art scene, women compete erotically while men do battle creatively. For all their references, Terry and Stefan never name-check a single woman — though the actual Dimes Square groove is deeply identified with woman writers, editors, and thinkers. And older women? God forbid any of them should put a toe in. Dave would ralph all over the coke tray.
A certain sort of play will insist on telling you what sort of play it is. (A name drops in a forest, and the audience is meant to hear it.) So when Chris talks about Dave as a Chekhovian writer, our ears swivel. Chekhov wrote ensemble-cast dramas in which issues of class and competition bubbled up through seemingly eventless scenes, and hey, wait a minute, that’s exactly what Dimes Square is. What was a Russian estate is now Stefan’s spacious loft with access to the roof; what was a community brought together by fading aristocratic largesse is now a group positioned hopefully around a guy with a Netflix deal. Gasda also shares Chekhov’s sense of himself as a diagnostician, though in Gasda’s case, he flatters his audience by reflecting it. The more savage barbs drew little gasps of insulted pleasure; mentions of scene-specific locales (Kiki’s, the Metrograph) got giggles of recognition. The Sunday I saw it, Lorentzen’s character noted that he’s jealous of only two authors: Josh Cohen and Sloane Crosley. Both were, of course, there that night.
Gasda has a deft, humorous touch and a rare talent for steering large numbers of characters through a non-plot, but for a play about the value of thought and seriousness, there’s a strange absence at its center. Again at the end of the play we hear Nate’s motto: “We are living through the dumbest time in American history.” What is that time? It doesn’t seem to be a time that includes the pandemic — despite the importance of “quar” to the formation of many Dimes Square projects, the show never mentions it. Certainly the unmasked audience doesn’t seem to be giving it a thought. That stupidity could therefore stand in for almost anything; since Gasda never points to any reality outside the loft, the anomie and heedlessness he finds in the Dimes Square circle extends into the tissue of the play itself.
The gravest issue Gasda finds at hand seems to be whether people will accord the proper respect to an artist, whether people will recognize “aesthetic hierarchy” or continue to be distracted by sex, drugs, and fame. Chris shouts about this near the end of the play. “You don’t tell your kids about meeting ‘relatively clever’ at a party,” he bellows. “You get hard for shit that will survive over time, that is the product of real existential blood and tears, or you don’t get your dick sucked at all — you stay soft. Period.” This sort of Ayn Rand–ian pleading, which confuses male potency and artistic value while whining that no one gets it does not carry much water in a play that itself contains no “existential blood or tears.” If only people would stop staring at themselves and make something good, the show says — just before catching its own eye in the mirror.
Dimes Square is at Ty’s Loft until February 27.