By Alena Smith
Directed by Jeremy Wechsler
Produced by Theater Wit, Chicago
When Protest Becomes a Rite of Passage, is it Really Protest?
Occupy Wall Street, the brief movement which provided the earliest evidence of political engagement by millennials, was greeted mostly with confusion, mockery, and annoyance by older observers. It was often used as an example of how millennials possess an alien mindset, but as a college student at the time, I was baffled by the Movement as well. The protesters who took over Zuccotti Park in 2011 in New York City, as well as areas in other cities throughout the country, demonstrated their displeasure at the bleak economic prospects for our generation, and the influence of corporate money in politics allowed by Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission the previous year. However, the unorganized movement quickly veered into radical identity politics and other far-left, neo-hippie causes, and disintegrated within months without ever having clearly expressed any goal or measure for victory. Now, in a Chicago premiere by Theater Wit, Alena Smith’s The New Sincerity explores the interaction between the Occupy Movement and more established leftists during its heyday. Though her comedic drama makes use of archetypes for characters, they are interesting to watch for ninety minutes, and provide a commentary on the Movement whose legacy has continued to reverberate to the present.
Rose (Maura Kidwell) is a Columbia Ph.D. student who has a gig writing for the literary magazine Asymptote. Located in a comfortable loft near Zuccotti Park, the office is the domain of Benjamin (Drew Shirley), a pompous thirty-something leftist who loathes that he depends for funding on the father of an absentee-partner who is mainly interested in critiquing TV shows. Rose’s recent article on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is much more in line with what he wants Asymptote to become, and he makes Rose a columnist, much to her delight. However, Benjamin is much less pleased when Rose announces her intention to write about the nascent Occupy Movement, which she intends to depict positively. To Benjamin, the Movement confirms that the left is “frivolous and unfocused,” and since his neurotic fiancé Sadie has just written a book on the decline of the American Left, it is important that her thesis be vindicated.
However, a single visit to the Occupy camp is enough to totally reverse Benjamin’s opinion. He quickly becomes an advocate for the Movement, and insists on involving the rest of Asymptote’s office as well. While genuinely inspired for perhaps the first time in his life, part of his motivation is to promote himself and to get closer to Rose. Sadie was jealous of her writing, and Benjamin clearly thinks Rose would be an easier person to be in a relationship with. But Rose feels attracted to Django (Alex Stein), one of the founders of the Movement, and a young man who is as ignorant, humble, laid-back, and goofy as Benjamin is arrogant, uptight, and selfish. Asymptote’s excitable college intern, Natasha (Erin Long), looks up to Rose and has her own reasons for encouraging Rose’s relationships with both men, while Django rejects the concepts of monogamy and commitment. The personal becomes indistinguishable from the political as the four grapple with their political ideals and how to negotiate sex from people they just might be climbing over.
Due to the play’s comedic style, the four characters almost, but not quite seem like real people. Natasha is like someone from the movie Juno, a meme-machine and endless fountain of witty pop-cultural references. Benjamin is detestable from the beginning and never gets any better. Besides his enormous self-regard and faithlessness to his fiancé, he also hits on Natasha, who he treats disrespectfully, even though (or perhaps, because) she has been an unpaid intern for three years. Rose is better in that she doesn’t completely view her leftist causes as a means for advancing her own ego, but her infatuation with Django is difficult to understand, since she’s much more mature than he and should have anticipated his back-story. Django is improved a lot due to theatre not being a medium in which we have to smell him, but he vindicates Benjamin’s initial impression of the Occupiers, which makes it strange that Benjamin would change his mind with him still around.
Director Jeremy Wechsler leads his actors through Smith’s verbal comedy at a brisk pace. He successfully establishes the feeling that time is moving rapidly due to the excitement of the protests, and is aided by the viral online content-inspired lighting and sound design of Sarah Hughey and Sarah Putts. Adam Veness, Izumi Inaba, and Vivian Knouse have made the set, costumes, and props accurate and visually engaging. The script’s greatest strength is that it captures the thought processes of the young people who observed each other’s responses to the Occupy Movement, but its biggest problem is that it doesn’t flesh those perspectives out into characters who are complex enough to engage with emotionally. Still, The New Sincerity works as a think-piece with humor. Now is also a good time to revisit the Occupy Movement, since whatever happens with Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, it helped millennials to clarify a lot of goals and establish more effective organizations. It may even have revived the concept of sincerity.
Reviewed March 13, 2016
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see The New Sincerity’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Theater Wit, 1229 N Belmont, Chicago. Tickets are $12-36; to order, call 773-975-8150 or visit TheaterWit.org. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm through April 17. Running time is ninety minutes with no intermission.