Inner Life of an Outer Borough

While Manhattan might be the proverbial melting pot, Brooklyn is more like a smorgasbord of borscht and oxtail stew, spicy red curries, and dim sum dumplings. The rich diversity of the borough has a long history, too. Brooklyn—or Breuckelen, in the original Dutch, meaning "broken land"—has always been a city of down-on-their-heels eccentrics, from the Mohawks who lived in Gowanus and helped build the first skyscrapers to the more recent immigrants from Russia in Brighton Beach, Poland in Greenpoint, the Caribbean in Flatbush, or Puerto Rico in South Williamsburg. Chris Van Strander's new play, Breuckelen, puts Brooklyn's newest wave of immigrants—glib, disaffected hipsters—into the perspective of the borough's storied past. As one of the play's most poignant moments reveals, Brooklyn is a metropolis where the living literally walk upon the dead, since potter's fields abound underneath many major landmarks. Grand Army Plaza, we learn, used to be the site of public hangings. But while the play does attempt some somber realizations, its brightest moments occur when it simply revels in the exuberance of its wacky characters.

The play begins as if it were an open mike night at a typical Williamsburg bar. The performers for this framing device change every week—I saw a slam poet, a standup comedian, and a folk singer. Overall, their quality was much higher than one would expect from a typical open mike, and entertaining enough for their five- to ten-minute spots.

The last open mike performer who takes the stage, Melissa Schneider, segues into the plot of the play proper. She gives a monologue in the guise of a longtime Bushwick resident who is asking people to sign a petition to stop the rezoning laws that would allow a cherished local museum to be torn down. After she takes her seat back in the audience, a twenty-something from Park Slope (Jack Ferry) with the requisite thick black frames and laptop approaches her with such pickup lines as "Are you from Tennessee? 'Cause you're the only ten I see" and "I'm new around here, do you think you could give me directions to your apartment?"

Their exchange of quick-witted quips reveals that he's a lonely blogger lacking any historical sensibility, while she is a witch (not Wiccan) who conjures exotic spirits from the past. Ferry and Schneider have a fun chemistry that easily elicits laughs, and the script for this scene provides ample jokes. Their tête-à-tête can be difficult to hear, however, depending on where one sits in the audience.

The rest of the play is devoted to monologues from the ghosts of Brooklyn's past, which range from a lesbian owner of a speakeasy to a Russian squatter who was booted to make way for Prospect Park. Director Matthew Didner has chosen to stage simultaneous monologues to different sections of the audience, which are later repeated to the other side. While intriguing at first, this technique quickly becomes a distraction, then irritating, and finally boring, since one may have already tuned in to the monologue across the room when the one closer seemed less interesting.

Karie Christina Hunt upstages all the other ghosts as she whisks in on roller skates while rocking out to the Beastie Boys. She plays the naïf teen "guidette" stereotype from Sunset Beach in punk-rock 80's garb: a pink and black miniskirt; a tight, cleavage-bearing rainbow sequins top; and florescent-green knee-high socks. She tells the story of how a slimy older guy in a speedo picked her up by promising to get her on his cable-access TV show, and then took her to an abandoned building where the roof collapsed on them as they made love. Funnier and flashier than the more dour monologues by the other ghosts, hers may be worth listening to twice.

The problem with the other monologues is that they attempt to be the tragic equivalent of a punch line. Such short-form drama has a hard time pulling the heartstrings, however, when the late-night beer-drinking crowd is focused on "rollergirl" gyrating in the background.

One aspect I found disconcerting was that in a play that purported to be about the marginalized histories of a city boasting enormous diversity (in fact, all the ghosts were women), no people of color were in the cast. Now, I'm not the P.C. police, but a fair representation of Brooklyn's richness would demand at least a token Muslim, Dominican, or African-American.

Like an open mike night itself, the whole show was hit or miss: some monologues and scenes evoked spot-on laughs about our shared frames of reference and Brooklyn's encroaching gentrification. Other acts or monologues languished under the weight of their dreary earnestness.

But, like Brooklyn the city, Breuckelen the play is worth the trek: while you might not like all the characters, you're sure to find a few amusing.

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