Balm in Gilead by Lanford Wilson
Like his lead character Darlene, Wilson came to New York from a smaller town in the Midwest chasing a dream. Here, he met a hodgepodge of whores, johns, junkies, pushers, and pimps who inspired him to create the denizens of this stream of social consciousness set in a 24-hour diner on upper Broadway. With a massive cast and rapid-fire dialogue designed to overlap naturally, Balm in Gilead sympathizes with everybody but coddles no one. Eventually focusing on Darlene and her puppy-love romantic obsession with Joe, a rookie drug pusher who is way out of his league, the play is an unflinching look at the city as wake-up call, an ice-cold glass of water tossed into the face of a dreamer.
Stage Door by Kaufman & Ferber
When the world of drama goes under its own spotlight, the results may be glorious or maudlin. But they are always insightful. And insight is what the dreamers who come to New York chasing their dreams of stardom usually need. They will find it in George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s rueful comedy Stage Door. Set in a theatrical women’s boarding house (itself an intrinsically NYC setting), the play focuses on the alternate rivalries and comradeships of young starlets with different amounts of talent, skill, connections, and luck. It reminds us of what is now the tired old saw, “There’s a broken heart for every star on Broadway”, and deals frankly with the depression that comes with defeat in close proximity with the joys of success. And like any good New Yorker, Kaufman & Ferber cast a witheringly cynical eye on Hollywood.
The Gentle People by Irwin Shaw
The darker side of NYC life is rarely more vividly depicted in drama than through gangsterism. But, while Mafiosi are often romanticized and glamorized on both stage and film, there are few criminal antics more simply presented than those of petty waterfront hood Harold Goff (Franchot Tone) in this 1939 “Brooklyn fable” that served as a call to arms against the looming fascist governments of the time. The title refers to two aging Jewish fishermen (Sam Jaffe and Roman Bohnen) who are constantly persecuted by Goff’s “protection” racket until desperation provokes them to take matters into their own hands with violent results. Presented by the Group Theatre, The Gentle People was later adapted (and whitewashed, nearly stripped of its signature Jewish Brooklyn flavor) as a Hollywood movie called Out of the Fog providing an early significant role for young John Garfield (himself whitewashed from his Jewish youth on the Brooklyn streets with the name Julius Garfinkel).
Slow Dance on the Killing Ground by William Hanley
Hanley’s three-hand morality tale opened on Broadway in November, 1964, a time of changing styles and changing attitudes. With George Rose, Clarence Williams III, and Carolan Daniels as three lost souls who meet for a Walpurgisnacht in a corner deli in Brooklyn before gentrification. Each has a haunted past and a painfully uncertain future and, in the course of their confessions, one gets a sense that they represent much larger swaths of the population than themselves. An old foreign immigrant (dare we say “refugee”), a young black intellectual from a desperate neighborhood, and a privileged female university student all serve as ciphers for the many who were like them in a changing city, country, and world. In spite of its emotional power and social relevance, Slow Dance on the Killing Ground only ran for 88 performances and did not make much of a name for Hanley, who later found better success as a television writer.
Here at Beautiful NY, it seemed at first as though a list of the top 10 greatest NYC plays might pale in intrinsic “New Yorkiness” compared to the list of musicals we completed last month. But soon we realized that the world of live theatre is so vast, and the aspects of the city that can be touched upon in drama so myriad, that the subject simply cannot be done justice in blog form. Consequently, we must apologize to the legendary playwrights who have been omitted from this painfully short collection of works. Honorable mention goes to Woody Allen, Maxwell Anderson, Harvey Fierstein, Michael V. Gazzo, John Guare, Frederick Knott, Terence McNally, Eugene O’Neill, and Paul Rudnick, all of whom have written splendidly deserving works in which the city is a character, but none of which ultimately made the final cut.
With the above in mind, we also made a painful choice that we did not make in our musicals list: to limit each represented playwright to one play. So, unlike Leonard Bernstein’s trifecta, there were only be one selection each from such dramatic luminaries as Arthur Miller, Elmer Rice, Neil Simon, etc. As always, we will reveal one per day beginning with #10:
#10 — A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller
As significant today as ever, Miller’s intense drama of an Italian-American family of dockworkers tackles themes of loyalty, betrayal, reconciliation, and belonging. Ostensibly decent longshoreman Eddie Carbone is plagued with jealousy and fear of the future as two new immigrants from Italy change his understanding of the world and family in which he lives. This flawed anti-hero could easily be a stand-in for modern America with a spotlight on immigration issues and their legalities. The play was initially set in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and written for the screen as The Hook in collaboration with Elia Kazan. After Kazan and Miller fell out and found themselves on opposite sides of the HUAC controversy, Miller re-crafted A View from the Bridge as a response to Kazan’s On the Waterfront. While Kazan moved the action of his classic opus to Hoboken, New Jersey, Miller kept his oft-revived masterpiece in his native Brooklyn.
On June 12, 1693, merchant Frederick Philipse received a royal charter granting him authority to build a span across Spuyten Duyvil called “King’s Bridge” which would soon become the name of the Bronx neighborhood to which it led. This was the first bridge connecting New York City to the mainland. By the time of his death at age 76, Philipse – who had been a dutch trader in New Amsterdam but quickly pledged allegiance to the British crown upon the establishing of New York – was one of the wealthiest landowners in the colony.
“The traditional pedestrian’s right of way is, as Shakespeare says, ‘more honored in the breach than the observance.’ New Yorkers pay no attention whatsoever to walk-don’t walk signs (it is just a part of that New York state of mind that asks: Why trust a sign? I have eyes!) — The New York Times Guide to New York City
“In New York the sky is bluer, and the grass is greener, and the girls are prettier, and the steaks are thicker, and the buildings are higher, and the streets are wider, and the air is finer, than the sky, or the grass, or the girls, or the steaks, or the air of any place else in the world.” — Edna Ferber