Why We Left Brooklyn

Jason is done acting, ready to get the hell out of Dodge. If it weren't for a potential book deal, his wife Michelle would be right there with him. "Why We Left Brooklyn" centers on a farewell dinner party, in which Jason's friends gather for a night of reflection and a bit of a reality check.

Recently Gary Winter spoke with Matthew Freeman (playwright) and Kyle Ancowitz (director) to discuss the emotional and comic underpinnings of this distinctly Brooklyn play.

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GARY WINTER: Matt, what inspired you to write the play?

MATTHEW FREEMAN: I've been living in New York since 1999, and I've lived all over the city. Kensington, Astoria, Midtown, you name it. Living on 5th Avenue in Brooklyn, I've never felt more a part of a place and apologetic about a place and aware of a place. When I travel and I tell people I live in Brooklyn, I can sense the reaction. "Oh, you live in Brooklyn."

Because of that, in my daily life, I'm inclined to mock the culture. It's just how I have fun. I make fun of the local foodies and the people that agonize over how to recycle pencils. The mommy bloggers and yoga-teers and rooftop farmers. I've always found it unknowingly exclusive and self-important and, worst of all, evangelical. Even though the intentions are to save the planet or raise brilliant children or combat high fructose corn syrup.

So, the initial impulse to write this play was to satirize. But, somewhere along the way, while actually writing it, I realized that it wasn't coming out as satire. It's not satire, and it can't be. I'm writing about the place in which I live, at the moment, right now. Once I realized that, I understood that it wasn't up to me to decide if me or my friends were some hilarious joke. The more honestly I wrote a relatively straightforward play about us, the more exposed I was allowing us to actually be. “Why We Left Brooklyn” allowed me, also, to write about what I fear, who I am, a little bit more directly than I usually do. “Why We Left Brooklyn” has fewer tricks up its sleeve. It started off as satire, but I guess it's actually just sincere.

Why We Left Brooklyn

Kyle, could you talk about your challenge as director of maintaining tone? It is a funny play, but the stakes are serious, so I can see there is a fine line to be walked.

KYLE ANCOWITZ: I'm very consciously trying to steer away from a satirical approach to this play. There are moments where Matt's original satirical impulses resulted in really memorable writing, but he had to take extra measures to make sure the language was plausible in the naturalistic world of the play—that there were things you might overhear an actual person say. For instance, Matt had a superb diatribe against pretentious Brooklyn "foodie" culture, which was really imaginative and over-the-top. He had to find a way to transform it from a linguistic joyride into a character's monologue without sacrificing the outrageous humor. When the audience hears the bit about "fear-based cuisine," they'll know what the character is talking about.

We have a play that's funny because the comedy is couched in the characters. They are funny people in a sad situation. If we succeed at amusing people, we'll succeed because the characters and their interactions with each other are believable. In the same way, their struggles with their ambitions and destinies are serious and believable. The satirical voice belongs to the characters.

Identity is a strong theme in the play for me. How one's identity is so tied up with a sense of place. Matt, I got the sense—and I wanted to know if you agree—that you could set the play in say, Burlington Vermont or Athens, Georgia and, besides specifics about the place, not much of the dynamics among the characters would change. 

FREEMAN: It's my hope that the play being extremely specific about the time and place of these individuals will help the audience relate, as opposed to distance them from the material. So in that sense, it's true. The overall arc of the story—the conflict between one person and their family, the choice to leave a place behind, the difficulty of maintaining a marriage when paths diverge—that can all be set anywhere. But I do think the specific place—it being in Brooklyn—gives the story color and detail.

I think one of the challenges of identity, truly, is that it can feel impossible to change. Once you've found a settled niche, a place in your group of friend or in your community, it can feel like you're disappointing yourself or others if you wake up one day and say "You know what? I think I don't like this anymore."

At one point, the character George says something I found intriguing: "We're privately showing our age, our bigotry. Like our parents once did. Also we bought these garlic potatoes." It's quite an admission, and I'm not sure how flippant George is being. The Park Slope neighborhood is notorious for being progressive, whatever that means these days, but I was wondering if you feel or have noticed less tolerance—or even a subtle bigotry—among yourself or people you know as you/they get older. Along those lines I think the play toys with the notion of how caught up we are with the symbols of being progressive; as if it's a competition or something.

FREEMAN: Well, I do think that I often hear (and tell) jokes that play with the thing we consider taboo, and the major taboo of being a progressive is to be close-minded and bigoted. In the way that a conservative might, to piss off friends, wear a t-shirt that declares they're a vegan. I've heard it called Ironic Hipster Racism. I think it's a bit different than that. It's less thoughtless, less actually bigoted. More of a joke. "We're becoming our parents."

But, do I think we're immune to bigotry? Absolutely not. It's a cloistered community, and far less diverse than it likes to pretend it is. So, we're hyper aware of diversity, and we believe diversity is important, and we know that bigotry is a bad thing. But we're always on point about it, examining it.

By the way, did I mention that I started composting a few months ago? Stick all my banana peels and carrot skins in a bag in my freezer and drop them off at the Fort Greene market on Saturday. Do you do that? If not, why not?

FREEMAN: Are you composting? Good on you. I don't currently. I have more and more friends that do. I might eventually. But I'm a bit lazy. I also, I don't know, think that we need a whole lot more large scale government action on a global level to help solve this problem. Individual action is great, but we need regulations and new kinds of cars, not just to make sure our plastics go in the right recycling bag.

But we can't deny that there is a component of being “green” that is connected to conspicuous consumption. I was listening to some radio news story about how, in areas of the country where people use a lot of solar paneling for their home, they'll almost always put the paneling on the visible side of the house, even if it doesn't get the most light.

Kyle, tell me about production considerations, the set, etc.

ANCOWITZ: The design means to complement what Matt already said about this play, which is that this piece is much more naturalistic in tone than much of his body of work. Close listeners will notice that the language is subtly (and artfully) heightened, but I know that he set out to portray a group of people and an environment that is recognizable from real life. As a consequence, the set, the lighting, the costumes are being planned to reinforce the comparison to an observable reality, while at the same time highlight some or the larger themes in the play, which include dislocation, the signals of class stratification, received cultural ideas, and so on.

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"Why We Left Brooklyn," produced by Theater Accident in partnership with the Blue Coyote Theater Group, runs from August 29th - September 21st at the Fourth Street Theater in New York City. The cast includes Rebecca Davis, David DelGrosso, Jay Leibowitz, Sarah K. Lippmann, Susan Louise O'Connor, Andrew Schwartz, Imran Sheikh, Moira Stone, and Matthew Trumbull.

Gary Winter was a member of OBIE Award winning 13P. His plays have been seen at The Flea, P.S. 122, HERE, The Chocolate Factory, 167 Tongues, defunkt theatre, The Brick, Dixon Place and the Cherry Lane Alternative. He served as Literary Manager of the Flea Theater from 1998-2008, where he still helps organize Pataphysics, workshops for playwrights. In September his play See Dick and Jane Get Ready for School will be performed at Cedar Crest College. He earned his MFA from NYU.