In the fall of 2020, a young playwright named Matthew Gasda decided to entertain some friends by staging a one-act drama on a grassy hilltop of Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn. The masked audience quickly realized that what they were watching was conspicuously relatable: Performed on a picnic blanket by seven actors, “Circles” presented a group of pandemic-weary friends who gather over wine one night in a city park to catch up on their lives.
After the applause, Mr. Gasda, 33, passed around a hat for donations. Then he began plotting his next play.
A few months later he unveiled “Winter Journey,” a drama loosely based on Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” in a chilly backyard in Bushwick. Then came “Quartet,” a comedy about two couples who swap partners, which he put on in a TriBeCa apartment. He staged his next play, “Ardor,” about friends who gather for a weekend in the country, in a loft in Greenpoint. He was a long way from Broadway, or even Off Broadway, but he was grateful for the attention.
“I’d long been staging plays in New York in anonymity,” he said, “but during the pandemic I became like the rat that survived the nukes. Suddenly, there was no competition.”
In the spring of 2021, he fell into a downtown social scene that was forming on the eastern edge of Chinatown, by the juncture of Canal and Division Streets. What he witnessed inspired his next work, “Dimes Square.”
“Dimes Square became the anti-Covid hot spot, and so I went there because that’s where things were happening,” Mr. Gasda said.
Named after Dimes, a restaurant on Canal Street, the micro scene was filled with skaters, artists, models, writers and telegenic 20-somethings who didn’t appear to have jobs at all. A hyperlocal print newspaper called The Drunken Canal gave voice to what was going on.
Mr. Gasda, who had grown up in Bethlehem, Pa., with the dream of making it in New York, threw himself into the moment, assuming his role as the scene’s turtlenecked playwright. And as he worked as a tutor to support himself by day, and immersed himself in Dimes Square at night, he began envisioning a play.
Set in a Chinatown loft, “Dimes Square” chronicles the petty backstabbing among a group of egotistic artists and media industry types. It’s filled with references to local haunts like the bar Clandestino and the Metrograph theater, and its characters include an arrogant writer who drinks Fernet — Mr. Gasda’s spirit of choice — and a washed up novelist who snorts cocaine with people half his age.
Adding a touch of realism, Mr. Gasda cast friends in key roles: Bijan Stephen, a journalist and podcast host, portrays a frustrated magazine editor; Christian Lorentzen, a literary critic, plays a haggard Gen X novelist; and Fernanda Amis, whose father is the author Martin Amis, plays the daughter of a famous writer.
Since the play opened in February at a loft in Greenpoint, “Dimes Square” has become an underground hit that consistently sells out performances. The people who see the show include insiders eager to see their scene committed to the stage, as well as those who have kept track of it at a distance via Instagram. The writers Gary Indiana, Joshua Cohen, Sloane Crosley and Mr. Amis have all attended.
The play, which is scheduled to start a Manhattan run at an apartment in SoHo on Friday, also won Mr. Gasda his first big write-up, a review by Helen Shaw in New York Magazine’s Vulture, that compared him to Chekhov and declared: “Gasda has appointed himself dramatist of the Dimes Square scene.”
After the appraisal ran online, Mr. Gasda received a text from a friend on his battered flip phone congratulating him on the fact that he had been “dubbed our chekhov.” But even as Mr. Gasda is getting his shot at success in literary New York, something about the noise surrounding his play has been troubling him.
“I’m thankful for the attention, but the people coming to see the show seem to think the play is complicit with the scene, and that’s getting totally warped by them,” he said. “The play is pessimistic about the scene.”
Moments before actors took the stage at a recent performance, audience members sipped cheap red wine and made small talk about the Twitter chatter surrounding the show. As the lights dimmed, Mr. Gasda, wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches and his usual scarf, reminded his guests to pay for their drinks on Venmo.
After the performance, as the loft cleared out, one audience member, Joseph Hogan, a 29-year-old filmmaker, offered a critique: “The likability of these characters is irrelevant to me,” he said. “What’s important to me is if their insecurities are relatable. And as a person who moved to this city from somewhere else and is trying to make it here in New York like they are, I feel I can identify with them.”
“If they’re not considered likable,” he continued, “then neither am I. And that’s fine with me.”
The play’s cast made its way to its usual bar, Oak & Iron. There, Mr. Gasda nursed a Fernet as Mr. Lorentzen passed along an evaluation of the show.
“A journalist came up to me and told me she thought you’d be just another Cassavetes rehash,” Mr. Lorentzen said, referring to John Cassavetes, the noted indie filmmaker of the 1970s and 1980s. “But afterward she told me, ‘No, he gets it. He’s doing his own thing.’”
“I’ve gotten Cassavetes references before,” Mr. Gasda said. “But it’s not my job to be interested in what people think. My job is to keep secreting and writing.”
He took a sip.
“It’s great we’re getting attention,” he said, “but it’s not like I’m making money out of this. I still have my day job.”
“It reminds me of this story I heard about a guy seeing ‘Einstein on the Beach,’” he continued, referring to Philip Glass’s 1976 opera. “Then the guy needed to get his toilet fixed, so he called a plumber. The plumber shows up, and the guy asks him, ‘Aren’t you Philip Glass?’ Glass tells him, ‘Yeah, but I’m not making money on the show yet.’”
Mr. Gasda’s quest to become a New York playwright began during his teenage years in Bethlehem, where his father was a high school history teacher and his mother was a paralegal. He grew up watching Eagles games on TV with his dad and hearing stories about a grandfather’s days as a steelworker. He became bookish, compulsively reading “Ulysses” and devouring the works of the poet John Ashbery and the novelist William Gaddis.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Syracuse University, Mr. Gasda hopped a bus to Port Authority. He spent his first day walking aimlessly until he stumbled on Caffe Reggio, a Greenwich Village institution that was once a gathering spot for bohemians and Beat Generation poets. And there, even among the New York University students doing their homework, he felt at home. He soon moved into an apartment in Bushwick and started his reinvention.
He wrote on a Smith Corona electric typewriter. He rocked the scarf and turtleneck to literary parties. He hung out in the stacks of the Strand and made Caffe Reggio his office, writing parts of over a dozen plays there. To make the rent, he taught English at a charter school in Red Hook and worked as a debate coach at Spence, the Upper East Side private school. He is now a college prep tutor and lives in a book-cluttered apartment in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn.
But even after a decade in the city, he could get few people aside from friends and family members to see his work — until his luck changed during the pandemic, when young New Yorkers, weary of Netflix, seemed up for some live theater.
Now, in addition to the second run of “Dimes Square,” another one of Mr. Gasda’s plays, “Minotaur,” is scheduled to open soon at a small venue in Dumbo. An early and intimate staging of the production included the actress Dasha Nekrasova, who has a recurring role on “Succession” and co-hosts the provocative politics and culture podcast “Red Scare.”
After a recent “Minotaur” rehearsal in Midtown, Ms. Nekrasova and another cast member, Cassidy Grady, huddled for a smoke on the street while Mr. Gasda chatted with them. They discussed the debut novel of the moment, Sean Thor Conroe’s “Fuccboi,” as well as the new play that was rounding into shape.
“‘Minotaur’ is a kind of Ibsenian drama,” Ms. Nekrasova said. “I’m enthusiastic about Gasda because he represents a burgeoning interest in theater, post-Covid, in the city.”
Mr. Gasda slipped into a nearby sports bar. He ordered a glass of Fernet, and as he considered the impending run of “Dimes Square,” he suggested that audiences think about his play differently.
“Ultimately, ‘Dimes Square’ is a comedy,” he said. “I’m not trying to send people to the therapist. And I’m not saying I’m better than the people in my play.”
“The other side of the play is about striving in New York,” he added. “So it’s about something that’s universal, too.”
Source: NY Times