The Downtown Loop: In brief
A jaded tour guide shuttles tourists through the evolving streets of lower Manhattan in Ben Gassman's multimedia play, directed by Meghan Finn and featuring video design by Jared Mezzocchi.
The Downtown Loop: Theater review by Helen Shaw
The handsomely produced tour-bus play The Downtown Loop fetishizes the sensation of going nowhere and (believe it or not) this actually starts out feeling like new kind of theatrical momentum. Quite quickly Loop does unravel; its aims diminish, and it veers from a fresh modernist game to a something staler. But even though it takes a series of wrong turns, Ben Gassman's play boasts a clever concept: A guide on an open-top double-decker finds himself giving us a simultaneous tour of the city and his own psyche.
The production is luxe—counterproductively so. Audience members make their way past the functioning hot-dog stand (your ticket gets you a drink), venture onto a high, transparent platform and plunge into an immersive video environment. Jared Mezzocchi's wraparound projections show us a bus-eye-view of New York, so that when our tour guide (chummy Greg Carere) tells us to look left, we really do peer down one of Gotham's canyons, glimpsing sights as they flash by. Occasionally scenes happen beneath our feet, so we look through Plexiglas at Carere as he interacts with various conquests (women from Spain or Finland) or the tchotchke merchants who peddle 9/11 memorabilia to tourists. Our garrulous guide may be an aimless Virgil, but the unseen driver downstairs knows his route, so the ritualistic progress of the bus down Broadway and up the West Side Highway goes eternally on.
All this exquisitely realized environment (overseen by director Meghan Finn) has the effect of making an audience into slack-jawed tourists. The projections effectively lull us into a receptive, goggle-eyed state. Gassman's play keeps promising things and then subverting them: There's some deliberate confusion of outer and inner monologue, which is briskly cleared up and dumbed down; there's some tart commentary on the commodification of Ground Zero which vanishes almost the moment it is made. The sensory richness throws the text’s slightness into unflattering relief, and since the set refuses to leave anything to the imagination, we can't fill in the gaps with our own invention.
Gassman can certainly write. Carere announces an approaching building: “Ahead, a honeycomb of concentrated capitalism!” and he exchanges clever dialogue with a trainee (sweet, plucky Sam Soghor, who plays his role as though he is stoned sideways). But Gassman seems to lack confidence, so he keeps changing tack, shying away from the stranger monologic elements to banal scenes between Carere and some very thinly written female characters.
The play's structure braces itself on three encounters with the guide's ex-girlfriend Her (Keelie A. Sheridan), who keeps hopping up on the bus to say hello. She changes enough that we realize the guide's Loop has been going on for years, and he measures his failure-to-thrive by her ability to change and grow. Unfortunately, she (and the other women who cross the guide's path) seem like paltry figures. Since we are in the guide's mind, I am eager to ascribe their two-dimensional quality to his shortcomings rather than to anything within Gassman himself.
The real trouble with these encounters, though, is that they systematically lower the stakes, so while the piece has charm, it also has a sense of inevitable diminishment. The mise en scène can never accelerate because our visual field is filled, from the outset, with maximum noise. The script, so interesting when it's still an existential riff on the terror of being a tourist in your own life, moves into clichéd, underwritten scenes between a man-boy and the girl who got away. The Downtown Loop starts with a bang, but it ends with a whimper—and with all apologies to T.S. Eliot, who wants anything to end that way?—Theater review by Helen Shaw
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