Every social movement has an arc — a growth curve that may seem exponential in the early days, like an out-of-control algae bloom, but changes as the movement reaches critical mass, as it (rarely) achieves its goals or is quashed by police.
Four years after Occupy Wall Street protesters began camping out in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, it’s easy to see that movement in those same terms — earnest young people, fed up with the status quo, but unable to channel their energy into lasting change, if they even know what the change they’d like to see could look like.
If I have one complaint about Bay Street Theatre’s new production of “The New Sincerity,” a comedy that takes a look at those early days in the park in New York, it’s that there’s nothing new about the initial sincerity and ultimate cynicism of these types of social movements.
This new play, written by Alena Smith, a writer on HBO’s “The Newsroom” and Showtime’s “The Affair,” is sharp-witted and funny, making it easy to overlook the puzzling title.
The story follows a nearly 30-year-old writer named Rose Spencer who has just begun working for a literary journal called Asymptote, whose office is across the street from the park. Rose, played by Justine Lupe, is a serious young woman who spends her days writing 10,000-word essays on subjects as arcane as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Greenwich Village.
Her editor, Benjamin, played by Teddy Bergman, knows he’s working in a doomed industry, but he can’t escape the requirements that he publish the drivel requested by his silent partner, who controls the magazine’s finances, or the philosophical sway of his fiancée, Sadie, who believes all new social movements are doomed to failure.
When Rose suggests he allow her to cover the Occupy movement, Benjamin originally scoffs at the idea, then becomes excited by it, and then ends up taking credit for Asymptote’s role in the protest as it grows, morphs and eventually is cleared out of the park by the police.
Mr. Bergman’s portrait of the cynical, self-interested Benjamin is true to its type, down to his occasional power-hungry outbursts, his buttery requests of his staff, his sport jacket and jeans and New Balance sneakers. He’s funny because he doesn’t care if people know his motives are self-interested. He’s the boss and he can do what he wants and he knows it. But he’s most funny because he’s not our boss.
Peter Mark Kendall, who plays a protestor whom we believe throughout the play is named Django, makes himself a copy of a key to the office. He can be found perched on his heels or on the flaps of his rucksack on the couch, drinking tea, swaying, chowing down on the last bites of carrots and hummus from the office mini-fridge and offering sage advice that all somehow seems to lead back to his own sexual prowess. He’s most funny because we probably know someone this absurd ourselves, but we can’t laugh so hard at people we know.
Next to these two caricatures, Ms. Lupe has a difficult task portraying an earnest, caring, serious writer trapped in the belly of a city that has little use for earnest, caring, serious writers. She rises capably to the challenge.
Elvy Yost just about steals this show with her portrait of obnoxious intern Natasha, a gum-chewing, sloppily dressed, sometimes androgynous and sometimes very sexy female character in her early 20s. She is paid in social currency (and in Benjamin’s bed). She speaks in social media acronyms but she knows the modern definitions of old words and can recite them on a dime.
When Rose grills Natasha about whether she’s using the word “galvanized” correctly, for example, Rose seems convinced that the definition has something to do with coating iron with zinc. Natasha insists that it means to shock or excite someone into action. They’re both correct, but their approach speaks volumes about how rapidly language is changing today.
It’s nice to know, as you’re watching this play, that it was written by someone who’s both young and fully aware of the dramatic powers in her possession.
The best hint the production gives to the playwright’s youth is the fact that the characters span less than a decade in chronological age, but seem generations apart in maturity and technological prowess. These distinctions mean a lot to a playwright in their early 30s. A writer just a decade older would have a tough time portraying these age-related nuances.
Bay Street, which has produced three world premieres including this play in the past year, deserves kudos for this commitment to finding and staging new work by young playwrights. Veteran director Bob Balaban coaxes the best out of his cast.
In the play’s final moments, Rose is sitting alone in Asymptote’s office, the park empty at night outside her office window as the stage lights fade and Joan Baez’s recording of the Phil Ochs song “There But For Fortune” plays for just a moment.
It’s a brief moment, but it does volumes to put this play’s message in the context of what happens to social movements. As you listen to the words of the song, penned by a man who rapidly became disillusioned with the social revolution of the 1960s, you realize that there isn’t anything new about new sincerity. These little upheavals are how society has changed for hundreds of years.
Most social movements have a glowing, shining moment when they seem to matter more than anything in the world to the people who are caught up in them. But that moment can’t last, because change is what movements are about. This play does a hearty job of capturing such a moment, and its aftermath, in amber for all of us to see.
“The New Sincerity” continues at Bay Street Theatre every day but Monday through June 14. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesdays & Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are available online here.