Holding up a "Brooklyn Rocks!" T-shirt, Deanna Pacelli, star of the one-woman show There Goes the Neighborhood, looks at it with embarrassment. "O.K., I bought this in 1996 when it was ironic," she says. "I can't wear it now. I'd look like an [expletive]."
Pacelli is speaking as Peter, a white, thirtysomething architect living in Carroll Gardens. A resident of the neighborhood for more than a decade, the affable Peter is one of the early invaders of what not long ago was a close-knit, working-class Italian neighborhood. He is also one of the 10 characters of varying ages, races, and sexual orientations whom Pacelli inhabits to recount the story of Carroll Gardens's rapid gentrification.
Written by Mari Brown and based on interviews with neighborhood residents that she and Pacelli conducted over a two-year period, There Goes the Neighborhood, playing at P.S. 122 through May 29, weaves together the perspectives of nine residents and one outside observer to create a complex and insightful portrait of the neighborhood. At the same time, it offers 10 dead-on portraits of these people who live and work there. Smart, wickedly funny, compassionate, and insightful, There Goes the Neighborhood is a brilliantly written, brilliantly performed piece.
Pacelli, who carries the entire hour of the play on the strength of her characterizations, switches effortlessly, almost breezily, between characters like Peter; Vinny, a lifetime resident of Carroll Gardens and third-generation owner of Cositini's Pork Shop ("Bringing You the Best Pork in Brooklyn for Over a Hundred Years!"); and Mike, a nightclub owner from Hong Kong with an enthusiasm for the nouveau in culture, music, and art.
For example, moments after making her confession about the "Brooklyn Rocks!" shirt as Peter, Pacelli has pulled a Brooklyn Cyclones baseball cap on her head and is standing with shoulders back and chest puffed out while she booms in Vinny's classic Brooklyn Italian-American dialect, "Hello? Hello? What is this? What is this, 'Brooklyn Rocks'? Who rocks? I'm Brooklyn, do I rock?"
Inhabiting all of her characters with equal poise, Pacelli delineates each one with a few well-chosen mannerisms (adjusting her bra straps, putting on Chapstick, pushing her glasses up her nose), a prop or two, and a handful of linguistic tics.
It helps, of course, that Brown's script gives her pitch-perfect lines to deliver. In an article published in The New York Times in 2003 (There Goes the Neighborhood was first performed in Carroll Gardens in 2003), Brown says that when she began waitressing in a local bar back in 2003, listening to her customers talk was like hearing lines of dialogue.
But even if she owes some of the natural richness of the script to a good ear for conversation, Brown has taken her raw material and arranged and polished it to perfection. The rough and smooth, the bad and good, the complaints and the paeans all fit together to make a deep and compelling portrait.
In fact, the "Brooklyn Rocks!" T-shirt is a fine metaphor for the show. Some of the characters hated it. Some loved it. A lot didn't understand all the fuss--Carroll Gardens, heart of Brooklyn, was their home, whether it rocked or not. There Goes the Neighborhood is a window into that world, and for the space of the play, it's easy to feel as if it's your home too.