The conceit behind Living Here seems intimate and appealingly idealistic: a solo “map of songs” performed by Gideon Irving that takes place in people’s living rooms, traveling from host home to host home (a new location for every performance, all of them secured through reference and recommendations, rather than being friends and family of the performer). This piece, commissioned by the Foundry Theatre, will traverse the five boroughs of New York, but Irving has toured other parts of the country and the world with other, similar pieces, using the same framework–the piece includes a brief travelogue of his peripatetic performing, charmingly illustrated by a hand-drawn, hand-cranked “film” reel.
One night, that home was a fairly glamorous three-story apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but it could be a basement apartment in Ridgewood, Queens, or someone’s porch in Staten Island (or, as in anecdotes included in the show, a billionaire’s penthouse in downtown Manhattan, a rural cabin in North Carolina, a semi-industrial loft in LA, a puppeteer’s cottage in New Zealand, or a potato farm in Colorado). Each night, Irving “moves in” to a new home–sets up his array of apartment-building-shaped boxes filled with whimsical instruments and artifacts, meets the hosts, performs his show, then spends the night on their couch or air mattress or spare bed. In the morning, he packs up, goes elsewhere, and starts over, perhaps with a new story to weave into this or a subsequent show.
But that whimsy and intimacy feel increasingly self-referential, even a little self-congratulatory, as the piece goes on. Irving says explicitly that he intends to do this kind of work for his whole life, and while it’s clear that artistic project is valuable for him, and possibly for the hosts and their intimates in the audience, it becomes challenging for a general audience member to feel addressed by the piece. For Irving, these virtual strangers are essential to his performance; his hosts, and the experience of being endlessly on the road, are a main source of material. Unsurprisingly, the richest parts of the show (both dramaturgically and emotionally) are the stories he tells about the people he’s met, in all their idiosyncratic detail, from the Mexican potato mafia to an illegal Puerto Rican snail named Sammy. His genuine affection and respect for them (most of them, anyway) comes through, in a much more meaningful way than when he focuses on himself and his position at the center of this web of connections.
It makes sense, too, that there’s a richness to the experience for the hosts: a chance to become integral to the creation of art, a chance to mine their own lives for nuggets and anecdotes that might be shaped into the piece. And perhaps, sometimes, an audience can genuinely and spontaneously form a fleeting community comprising hosts, producers, and strangers. But there’s also a risk of insularity, of an “in-crowd” formed when a tiny audience has a preponderance of people already known to one another (friends of the hosting family, members of the theatre); here, it felt almost inappropriate to be a genuine stranger just trying to see a show. The press release notes that “at each performance, roughly half of the audience will be friends of the host, while the other half will be friends of The Foundry.” There doesn’t seem to be a place for someone to join either of those communities.
Irving, at his worst, can come off as self-important, almost narcissistic, greedy for affection and connection with strangers. He’s a clever songwriter (the lyrics are almost always more interesting than the music), but sometimes seems far too determined to show off that cleverness, whether by displaying skills with a plethora of instruments or by bringing out ever more intricate props. At its best, the show is gentle, poignant, and charming. But it too often felt like a private party, one to which not all of the audience–perhaps not any of the audience–had been invited.