Thomas Burns Scully
It doesn't happen often but sometimes two of our writers see the same show. Because no one's opinion is ever the same, we like to post both reviews. Enjoy!
Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. But that’s never stopped anyone from indulging. A few days ago people were posting online about the twentieth anniversary of the PlayStation, and I will admit to a few sentimental skipped heartbeats listening to the Startup music for the first time in over a decade. And I’m not naturally given to nostalgia, in fact I abhor it in so many ways, but you can’t avoid it. I swear by the words of Eric Idle, who when speaking about Monty Python reunions, referenced the Beatles, saying “You don’t want a Beatles reunion, what you want is to be young again, when the Beatles were new and exciting.” That’s essentially how I feel about ‘Stoopdreamer’ by Patrick Fenton, my second visit to Origin’s 1st Irish Festival. It’s not a poorly written, poorly intentioned or poorly acted piece, but it’s so mired in nostalgia it makes me uncomfortable.
‘Stoopdreamer’ tells the story of Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn and its gentrification from old Irish neighborhood to modern hipster-heaven. The story is recounted through the eyes of three Windsor Terrace residents having a quiet drink in an old working-class bar. They tell their stories directly to the audience, indulging us with ‘Pepperidge Farm’ style reminiscences for an hour and change. One is the bartender, speaking gently about the old faces and the bulldozing of delis. Another is an ex-cop, a child of the late-fifties, remembering jukeboxes and romantic teenage interludes. The last is a woman who has since moved away, chasing a lost childhood bad-boy, and talking fondly about the families she grew up with. There is a pervading air of melancholy as they recount the disappearance of their old neighborhood, and an angry edge of pain as they describe their own ineffectuality in the face of the wrecking machinery of change.
It’s not a bad play, but I have to be honest, I found the whole affair rather dull. There’s nothing inherently wrong with nostalgia. As Alan Bennet might say, it can be an amiable vice. But it’s often accompanied by two unwelcome bedfellows: misdirected anger towards the young, and the missed understanding that almost all happiness is based on someone else’s unhappiness. That’s definitely the case here, not to an unrivaled extent, but enough to make me feel uncomfortable. You see, it’s great to talk fondly about the old neighborhood, to remember with passion a time gone by, and to remember its unfair, and ruthless destruction is noble. An understanding of what comes before is essential. But then there’s seeing the symptoms of an unwanted change as causes of an unwanted change.
Patrick Fenton’s oral history of Brooklyn gentrification paints incoming Brooklynites in a wholly poor light. Jack O’Connell’s Bartender character ridicules them for their craft beers, food co-ops, and ostensibly blames them for pushing people out of their homes. He even goes as far as to say that they don’t care about what came before. Now, I’m not about to glorify new-wave Brooklyn, like most developments, it’s a mixed bag. But speaking as someone who moved to Brooklyn in the last four years, I didn’t do it out of spite, I didn’t do it to displace anyone, and I certainly do care about what came before. I moved to Brooklyn because I couldn’t afford to live in Manhattan. When rents go up the only people who win are landlords. So the demonization of the incoming masses is a futile and unfair act, when the real ire should be reserved for the evils of the real-estate market.
Perhaps it’s unfair of me to criticize this in a play about working-class stiffs, about people who perhaps don’t take in the whole picture and can only process the immediate effects of a problem as they are happening to them. But then, surely, isn’t that talking down to people? Assuming that people are less intelligent than you, I’m fairly sure that’s condescending. And a play that purports to offer a wider perspective on the human impact of gentrification and fails to see it from more than one, wholly valid and important, but limited perspective, is surely missing something.
This brings me to my second major problem with ‘Stoopdreamer’, its flawed golden age thinking. Fenton does paint post-prohibition Irish Brooklyn as a kind of golden age. Like all golden ages, it didn’t exist. Yes, we remember it beautifully, we loved the people, and we loved much of what we did, but everyone has to acknowledge that the happiest times of our lives were likely imperfect and flawed, both personally and on a grander scale. Selective memory is a powerful force, and allows us to forget day-to-day heartbreaks, being bullied at school, scraped knees and feeling trapped by youth. I refuse to believe that the era of Brooklyn painted in ‘Stoopdreamer’ is superior in every way to the Brooklyn that exists now. We’re talking about a place and time that was pre-civil rights, that had only just allowed women to vote, where alcoholism and crime were rampant, where people did industrial work their whole lives that destroyed their bodies and minds, and to want more for yourself was tantamount to class warfare. The play touches briefly on the self-inflicted crushing of working-class aspiration, but it never seems to fully acknowledge it as a crack in its golden age.
There’s a cartoon going around the web, that has done in various forms for some time, of a group of Native Americans watching a European ship arriving in 1492. One of them turns to the other and starts complaining about immigrants coming and ruining the country. You could say a similar thing about gentrification. Go back far enough and every bit of land you’ve lived on belonged to someone else. Whether it was the Irish, African-Americans, Hobos, Native Americans, wild animals, dinosaurs… you may think I’m being facetious, but I’m not, I’m perfectly serious, all our land is stolen from someone or something, and they are dead or moved on because we live where we do. That’s a fact that all of us have to make peace with. To paint one living situation in one place and time as the natural order is to say that none of the others were valid, and I find that, even if unintentional, disrespectful.
As a documentation of a bygone era now fading from living memory, ‘Stoopdreamer’ is fine, it’s a perfectly adequate piece. It’s actors are solid. Jack O’Connell, Bill Cwikowski and Robin Leslie Brown all turn in above-par work. The presentation of the piece is interesting enough to keep you engaged. But I can’t quite get over my own personal biases against the piece. Perhaps I’m just getting tired of hearing older generations glorified, and my generation ridiculed. No one’s perfect, but it seems to be acceptable to pretend that a generation that caused a world war, and didn’t let black people vote is. I respect my elders, I do, but sometimes we have to call a spade a thing that can, at times, be used to bury bodies. The older people in the audience, who probably lived through the time being described, seemed to really love the show. So, as a nostalgia piece, ‘Stoopdreamer’, it seems, is perfect. But as an opinionated piece of theatre, I find it flawed. Not deeply flawed, but flawed in a way that irks me in just the way that I don’t like to be irked.
‘Stoopdreamer’ runs at The Cell through September 27th as part of Origin Theatre’s 1st Irish Festival. Ticketing and show info can be found at thecelltheatre.org/stoopdreamer/
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been