Matthew Freeman wanted to create a satire of Park Slope, Brooklynites. Since these folks are his neighbors in real life, he knows them well and thought a roast would be fun to write. Esoteric experimental theater, artisanal cheese, how Barclay Center construction is affecting morning commutes—all topics were up for grabs, and all still appear in the final version of his play Why We Left Brooklyn. But as Freeman began to consider his role within the community, the play took on darker tones.
"It felt like the satire thing was easy and my own life and living was harder to talk about, so that seemed to kind of take over the play. I figured I'll just write from my own perspective and about what scares me more than what I'm living through," says Freeman, who added that most of his previous plays have had an element of magical realism. "The next big challenge for me as a writer was to write something without all the adornments, to write a straight play."
Why We Left Brooklyn explores the lives of several 30-somethings, members of a generation who were promised that they could do anything. But what if their dreams haven't panned out as planned? These characters are grappling with that notion, staying in comfortable jobs or fighting to eke out a living, while only a few are content with the path they've selected. At the core of the play is married couple Jason and Michelle. She's staying in Brooklyn in order to publish and promote her book. He's giving up on acting and packing his bags for Ohio to teach college. She'll join him there at a later date. On the eve of Jason’s departure, they're throwing a final dinner party for their closest friends.
Freeman says that the relationship resembles the one he has with his wife, Pamela, except in real life the two are happily married. Freeman enjoys his day job at the American Civil Liberties Union and writing plays. While he’s glad he doesn't have to make a choice, he’s scared of having to leave the theater. The anxiety is there, though, and he’s familiar with it.
Just as Freeman challenged himself by writing something that asked him to reflect upon his own life, director Kyle Ancowitz wanted to change up the way he did things, too. Ancowitz and Freeman have been collaborators for nearly 10 years and have an easy rapport at a recent tech rehearsal. Ancowitz says Freeman tends to favor an absurdist style, describing his work as having a Beckettian quality; Freeman's first play produced in New York in 2001, The Great Escape, dealt with the topic of divorce and involved a grown son tying his mother to a chair, while That Old Soft Shoe dealt with the torture in Guantanamo following the Iraq War.
"This play, particularly, is a divergence from that voice of outrage. It was a special new experience that way," says Ancowitz. Naturalism, he found, required him to draw more on memory rather than imagination. He thought about parties he had attended. What were those like? How did people move within a small apartment, plotting paths of least resistance to the bathroom, the beer?
"In other plays that are less naturalistic, I would organize the players in the space in a way that would lend to more of a sense of spectacle," says Ancowitz. "I worked with the designers to come up with a scene that is recognizable from life. I'm definitely planning where everybody's going, where everybody's looking, but I'm trying to do it in such a way that it doesn't look planned, that it looks accidental."
Staging a party scene with 10 characters onstage required a circle conformation. Actors sit on folding chairs while boxes serve as makeshift tables. As written, the play's action is centralized, the conversation (mostly) intended for everybody to hear. Ancowitz explains that most of the characters are listening to whoever is speaking instead of looking off, or reapplying their make-up.
Both he and Freeman hope the effect is one where the stakes feel acknowledged and sold by the actors onstage. They want the audience to appreciate the struggle these characters are experiencing.
"I really am hoping that people outside of theatre will relate to it as anxiety they feel in whatever career they're in," says Freeman. "I think this is a very real thing that our generation goes through, where we're sort of wanting to do many things at once and we want to follow our dreams, as well we should. But it's actually hard to do."
Laura Hedli is a journalist based in New York City