Dimes Square, the new play by Matthew Gasda that ran in New York this winter and spring, gives us a portrait of a group of writers and artists hanging out in a Lower East Side apartment over the course of a few days. As an ensemble piece, it doesn’t rest long on any one character or storyline, and instead uses the cast to explore its concerns, which relate to the role of the artist, relations between the sexes, the wages of hedonism, and the morality of raiding someone's secret drug stash.
The apartment which provides the setting belongs to Stefan, who has just sold the rights of his first novel to Netflix and is reveling in his success. He's recently snared a young new girlfriend who's an NYU drama student and, as the play opens, is presiding, in Dionysian fashion, over a Fernet and cocaine-fueled bacchanal. Despite his healthy amount of self-regard, we learn early on that Stefan and his work aren't universally esteemed.
Stefan's rival and Apollonian antithesis is Terry, a director whose seriousness of purpose, morosity, and aloofness weigh down the frivolity of the others. He’s received recognition for his recent film, which other characters freely call beautiful, but he can’t seem to enjoy his good fortune. Unlike his host, who he feels has unfairly overshadowed him, he stays away from the excesses of the group. When his filmmaking collaborator Bora arrives, he can’t help but confess his unhappiness and wallow in self-pity over numerous petty concerns.
Terry’s demand that Bora tell him that she loves his film reveals his insecurity as well as one of the play’s themes, which is how to decide what makes for great art. When he declares to her that he wants nothing less from his work than to inspire “transcendence," she's unimpressed, leaving us unsure as to whether we should take Terry’s preoccupations seriously or write them off as the complaints of a narcissist.
When two older male writers appear in the apartment, the debate about what makes for artistic greatness is recapitulated. Dave and Chris, both middle-aged, are portrayed simultaneously as cautionary tales and fonts of wisdom. When the fledgling writer Klay criticizes Dave’s book as having an overly difficult style, Chris gives a fiery defense, arguing that its incomprehensibility is an essential part of its greatness. No one wants near-genius, he claims, while holding up James Joyce's' Ulysses as the exemplification of literary achievement.
One can enjoy reading Joyce or not, but for a play concerned with the “hierarchy of aesthetics” as one character puts it, there’s precious little discussion of what this hierarchy should be based upon. Aside from one character's admonishment that art should "survive over time" and be "the product of existential blood and tears," what makes art great is left enigmatic. By contrast, what not to do is somewhat more clear, as it is implied that excessive hedonism destroys the creative spirit. Yet we shouldn't hope for more, as a play isn't the best place to try to explicitly lay out aesthetic standards, though that doesn't stop Dimes Square from trying.
In one of the play's most vivid scenes, the visual artist Rosie comforts the young Ashley, Stefan’s girlfriend. Rosie's advice, while perhaps containing an echo of truth, is striking in its glib acquiescence to fate. Despite that, real pathos, well expressed by the actresses, is generated here. Yet, the storyline that generates this frisson is allowed to fizzle out unceremoniously in the anti-climactic climax and we're prevented from purging the conflict that has built up over the course of the action.
In classical narratives like The Bacchae, or more recent tales of debauchery such as Les Liaisons dangereuses, characters who violate the laws of the gods or the church end up punished, letting us know the price that must be paid for trespassing against the moral code. We may no longer live in a world of absolutes, but drama still requires catharsis. Characters infringe against morality in Dimes Square, but they suffer little for it. This is due, one senses, to their general lack of conviction about anything at all.
When the curtain of the play comes down mid-scene–and very nearly mid-sentence–without any real resolution, we feel as though we're left in the middle of the night on a random block in Chinatown, our journey unachieved. As a reflection of reality, it might not be far from the truth. But as fiction, one can't help but think that the action we've witnessed could have added up to more.
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