Down and Out in Dimes Square

A new play by Matthew Gasda, starring literary critic Christian Lorentzen, takes on the sceney politics and coke-fuelled power games of a notorious Lower East Side locale. Geoffrey Mak reviews the first theatrical run – a titillatingly moralistic critique of the downtown New York scene that viewers the world over love to hate.

“Can I tell you something that might sound like an invitation, but is in fact a cry for help?” asks Iris, a poet (Agnes Enkhtamir) sitting next to her boyfriend Nate (Jordan Lester) near the start of Matthew Gasda’s, new play Dimes Square . “I own a strap on. However, I don’t use it; I like to dress up in it and watch myself in the mirror. It really turns me on. So... then I just take it off and masturbate.”

Iris’ cry for help – any psychoanalysts wanna have a go at it? – suggests a thirst for power that devolves into masturbatory narcissism, a psychosexual condition that affects nearly every character in the play. Dimes Square – an off-off Broadway production staged this month in a Greenpoint loft, and again in a Soho loft in April – features a group of writers, directors, and artists over a series of late nights at a filmmaker’s Manhattan loft. The cast is a knowing mirror to the contemporary scene that congregates around Clandestino, 169 Bar, and Kiki’s in New York’s Lower East Side. In Gasda’s version, careerist bohemians gossip behind each others’ backs, flirt for followers on social, text friends who may or may not be coming over after last calls – “the podcast guys” – and trade hot takes on the decline of the age.

As a comedy of manners, the play is as good as it gets – a chain of references and inside jokes meant to reflect a scene to the scene itself. To get them to change? Not exactly. To get them off? Closer. In his essay on the mirror stage”, Jacques Lacan describes how a female pigeon will sexually mature by watching its own reflection in a mirror. Autofiction as autoeroticism.

Matthew Gasda, 33, has written thirteen plays before Dimes, and has produced nine of them through his Phrenes Theater Company. Several of the actors are cast in and around his literary network. Fernanda Amis, an untrained actor who plays the daughter of a renowned novelist, is the daughter of Martin Amis off-stage. Christian Lorenzten, the venerable critic for Harper’s and the London Review of Books (also untrained), plays an acclaimed novelist who dishes caustic asides on literary aesthetics.

One of Dimes Square’s recurring lines – “We’re living through the dumbest time in human history” – positions IT as witness to the decline of Western civilisation from the view of a coke-fuelled Chinatown loft.

It’s a generational snapshot – someone had to do it, and at least it’s someone who knows how to write. Gasda has also written three novels, two of which – Moon on Water (2013) and The Blue Period (2020) – are about artists and zombie bohemians in New York. It’s a milieu he knows well, and Dimes Square exhibits a native-speaker’s ear for metropolitan speech patterns, simultaneously hilarious and devastating. On the subject of Nate, who got “cancelled” and dropped by his record label, a film director named Terry (Conor Hall) declares, “the Woke Inquisition is just getting started”, elaborated as “a professional-managerial class that's increasingly, frighteningly powerful and basically theocratic.” I mean, spot the lie.

This is as far as the play’s politics will go. Perhaps this sounds reactionary. One of Dimes Square’s recurring lines – “We’re living through the dumbest time in human history”, per Nate – positions it as witness to the decline of Western civilisation from the view of a coke-fuelled Chinatown loft. This is an inherently conservative stance – that we are living in a decadent age with eroding values – and that’s also why we love it. It’s like early Joan Didion: stylised malaise as a sleight-of-hand for political apathy. (A liberal version of the play would have been all about privilege. Would we want that?)

It helps that the characters are a little bit ridiculous, flattering the audience by letting them imagine themselves as superior. Each figure inhabits a unique spot along the play’s social hierarchies, be it economic, artistic, or sexual. Gasda has a masterful way of mapping exquisitely passive-aggressive power triangles within each of the personae that layer over each other symphonically, like in counterpoint. Stefan, a novelist with a Netflix deal, has commercial success while Terry, a critically-acclaimed director, has prestige. Both are jealous of the other, and try to sleep with each other’s women. “You're clearly uncomfortable with the idea of an aesthetic hierarchy”, shouts one character to another, mining one of the play’s most productive insecurities.

Christian Lorentzen and Fernanda Amis in  Dimes Square  (2022)

Christian Lorentzen and Fernanda Amis in Dimes Square (2022)

Gasda’s female characters are more complex and more capable of connection. “What are your insecurities?” asks Ashley, an undergrad at NYU Tisch, to Rosie, a self-assured artist who gets thrown off balance by the question. (I’m told that this is also a question Gasda likes to ask people.) “I’m too insecure to embrace eroticism as fully as I pretend to”, Rosie confesses, one of the best lines of the play because it shows real intimacy. These characters play the game, not because they think they need to, but because they like it and are good at it. They understand it. Olivia says of Ashley, “I think she's a real operator”, and that’s meant to be a compliment. “We’re like the worst people in New York”, adds Klay, a struggling writer.

But why should this be so repulsive? The suggestion is that there are no truly great artists in the room, and these intricate power games are making this the dumbest time in human history. Terry, whose film The Work of Fire is treated by other characters as true genius, is too pathetic and egotistical to be a hero. He can’t get laid, and lapses into self-absorbed monologues of mordant self-pity to his cinematographer Bora, who replies, “How come you never ask me about me?”

Thrillingly, because this is such an uncommon stance, the play’s critique of the generation isn’t political, but moral. Importantly, Gasda doesn’t conflate the two (in the way that a more progressive play might have). In a formidable declaration that seems to channel Lionel Trilling, Terry – who might be the closest to a mouthpiece for Gasda – pronounces: “There's been a total foreclosure of moral possibility and imagination in our culture, a reduction of the spirit of the laws to the letter of the law.” This is one of the most cunning and exacting indictments of today’s cultural climate I have ever heard. But is Dimes Square the answer? Critique itself is not a sufficient response to the very thing Terry, and perhaps Terry alone, valorises: moral beauty. Nobody in the play embodies this ideal. Bora is moral, but not a great artist. Terry is ostensibly a great artist, but morally rancid; his sexual advances are described by Iris, later, as “rapey”.

the life of power and society is real. Other writers may condescend to this life, but Gasda treats the subject searchingly, buoyantly, lovingly.

Throughout the play, I kept asking myself, What is power for? Dave, a gimmicky but acclaimed novelist who is described as having written “the best novel of the last ten years”, is ostensibly the character with the most power in the play. He enters the room, boisterous and swaggering. His lines are full of barrelling charisma, almost bullying the characters and the audience into laughter. Played by Lorentzen, his is easily the best performance in the play, but somehow with the weakest lines. There’s no nuance or movement, all bravura. Gasda has a talent for writing characters who desire power, but less so for the ones who already have it. Those with the most power, even past their prime, should have the capability of exhibiting, in flashes, a virtuosity of spirit that demonstrates why they have power to begin with, which – in a play as rich in irony as this one – might only be recognised by the single character who has the least power in the room. For social satire to deliver meaningful critique, it needs a tragic element, which might be figured by a Lear or Don Corleone type, even if in a comic mode. With Dave, a missed opportunity, we don’t get any such moments.

But the life of power and society is real. Other writers may condescend to this life, but Gasda treats the subject searchingly, buoyantly, lovingly. But to its corrosive tendencies, the play offers few answers. Bora, the only “good” character, walks out on the whole thing after she breaks off her affair with Stefan, who is cheating on his girlfriend to get back at Terry. But is walking out a viable stance? What does that mean for the rest of us, who still believe in art but are enmeshed in these endless games, helplessly trying to reconcile the dream of power with the dream of morality?

I thought about this on the way back from the play, heading to the L train until somebody stopped me out of my trance. “Love that outfit”, he crooned. I had paired a nylon bomber with leather pants, a questionable decision, but I was wearing four-inch heels, clopping down the platform. He was bundled up: plaid scarf around the neck, a heather grey hoodie under a jacket, and then a tan beanie that kept falling off his head as he rocked back and forth on the wooden seats. “I just got back from a date, and he straight up walked away from me without saying anything”, he said. This was the Lorimer stop in Williamsburg, so I thought he might be coming back from the gay bar, Metropolitan. “He hurt my feelings”, he said.

“You gotta learn how to hurt other people’s feelings, babe.” I never call strangers babe. “Here, practice on me. Try to hurt my feelings.”

“Those boots were NOT made for walking”, he blurted. He was girthy, with a laugh that bellowed out of him.

“You gotta try harder than that. It’s a tough world out there.”

Just as the words left my mouth, I knew that he was homeless. I don’t know why it took so long. I felt suddenly embarrassed to be talking to him, as he rambled on about his date, and how all the people in his life desert and abuse him. His sister won’t return his calls. He was an alcoholic. He finally got a psychiatrist. “Nobody in this world loves me”, he said as he began to cry, eyes reddening. His voice sounded like the blues. He looked at me with large, almond-shaped eyes, hungry and cloying. That look was desperate, but also one of recognition – as if to say he knew me – and for a flash revelation I saw myself through his wild eyes, and was stupefied. I said to him, “I love you, right now”, and in that moment I meant it. When the train arrived, he told me, “I’m going to stay here”, and I left him. Once I found my seat and the doors closed, I thought, Was that an angel? I happen to believe in angels, and even though I don’t necessarily think he was one, the thought crossed my mind. What had just taken place was not charity, it was an intimacy. I shuddered. For the rest of the ride home, I didn’t listen to any music, and once I got off at my stop, I clopped my way home in my four-inch heels, and went on thinking about power and society.

Dimes Square
Written and Directed by Matthew Gasda
Remaining performances: 26 and 27 March; 1 – 4 April 2022

GEOFFREY MAK is a writer living in New York and a frequent contributor to Spike.