Sam Soghor and Greg Carere in THE DOWNTOWN LOOP at 3LD Art & Technology Center. Photo by Todd Carroll.
BOTTOM LINE: A unique theatrical experience with far more to offer than meets the eye.
I have a confession to make; I do not love New York. As an actor living perennially below the poverty line, twice afflicted with bedbugs, now sleeping in a pantry in Brooklyn, I have been too much on her bad side for too many years to bask in her glow for long. However, I still choose to live here and despite daydreaming about a hermit like existence on a small lake far from civilization, I cannot imagine living anywhere else. For tourists, the extremely wealthy, undergrad musical theatre majors, and the weekend warriors who flock from the tri-state area she remains a shiny, mystical city where dreams come true and anything can happen, but linger in her grasp for long and you will come to feel her wrath.
Perhaps in this way New York City is a demon god, as playwright Ben Gassman affirms in his new play The Downtown Loop. Anyone who stays on this bus tour for long may come to the same conclusion, as we are confronted with the city's gentrification, class divides, and homelessness all while savoring her exciting excesses. Our tour guide on this trip through the neighborhoods of Manhattan below 59th Street is exceptionally good at his job. He has the ability to blend fact with fiction in a way that leaves you wondering which is which, and through the course of our time spent on the tour we realize he is in a co-dependent love/hate relationship with his job and the Big Apple. Weaving our way through the twisted downtown streets on this virtual 3D tour where the easily navigated grid of midtown ends, we are taken on a humorous, touching, and often depressing journey of NYC past and present. Images flash by quickly, scenes occur below, behind, and beyond us during this unique and vibrant production.
With video designs by Jared Mezzocchi and direction by Meghan Finn, the evening moves along at a clipped pace that is both appropriate and jarring. Sitting on a glass bottom riser, surrounded by huge screens flashing unbelievably up-to-date images of Manhattan, it is hard not to be completely transfixed with the world they have created. The production could easily translate to film as the scenes that take place within the space are also projected on all sides for our squeamish enjoyment. However, the voyeuristic appeal of watching a clandestine sexual encounter occur in a grungy bar bathroom below your theatre seat would be lost, as would the raw and uncomfortably relateable central performance of Greg Carere as our tour guide. While all of the actors are giving adequate performances, it is through this character's lens and with this actor's gifts that we experience this journey through NYC. With effective lighting design by Sarah Johnston and sparse though perfectly imagined set designs by David Ogle, all aspects of the production come together to support his performance. Tourists and locals alike would be well advised to skip the double decker bus departing from midtown and hop on the virtual ride conjured up by this group of inventive artists. Much like the city itself, the show is one part humor, two parts heartbreak, and unflichingly honest.
I will not say that The Downtown Loop left me with much hope that our tour guide or myself will soon escape our less than ideal existence in the city that never sleeps, but it's nice to know I'm not alone. Much like the character, I will rise tomorrow, go to work, and carry on begging for tips. Despite everything that NYC has not given me, it is with the prospect of what it can that continues to drive me forward. So perhaps with this newfound perspective gained from my tour on The Downtown Loop, I will come to love New York City after all.
(The Downtown Loop plays at 3LD Art and Technology Center, 80 Greenwich Street, through November 16, 2013. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 8PM and Saturdays at 3PM and 8PM. Tickets are $25 and are available by calling 866-811-4111. For more information visit www.3ldnyc.org.)