Adam Gopnik is certainly on the radar of any member of the the cultural congregation you would expect to attend an event at The Public Theater on a frigid Friday in January. He has been a contributor to The New Yorker for over 30 years, and is now a staff writer for the magazine. He’s written books and ridden the speaker circuit around the world. Yet, it is at the Under the Radar festival where you can experience The Gates: An Evening of Stories with Adam Gopnik, his 90-minute spoken memoir about marriage, parenthood, and that ever flowing source of tales of romance and adventure, New York City.
The gates in the title refer to two entrances to Central Park. The Stranger’s Gate welcomed Gopnik and his girlfriend, now wife, Martha Parker, when they first arrived, via bus, from Montreal in the early 1980’s as optimistic young writers. The Children’s Gate welcomed them back in 2001 after they spent many years in Paris, this time bringing their young son Luke along as well. The show basically deals with these two periods of Gopnik’s life. We hear tales of tiny “garden” apartments (it’s just a basement) in the 80’s, and anecdotes about raising teens in the internet age.
Gopnik has covered much of this in his work with the New Yorker and in his books. That literary history and his obvious skill at creating verbal imagery make it easy to appreciate the content of the evening. Those who have lived here long enough will appreciate the capable descriptions of a New York City that no longer exists. Gopnik also attempts to present some of life’s larger lessons. For example, there’s a story about how his wife liked her steak well done and he preferred his rare. Turns out the secret to a good marriage is finding the balance between being too tough and too tender. His attempts at higher meaning never feel force fed, but neither do they truly stick to your ribs. He and his stories are funny and sweet and produce a pleasant evening. It was akin to watching a string of YouTube videos of a particularly likable and literary talk show guest share his life experiences on something like Johnny Carson or Dick Cavett’s shows.
The title of the show is spot on. This is indeed an evening of stories, surely related but not necessarily adding up to a greater whole. In the same way no one would call a collection of Gopnik’s New Yorker pieces a novel. As you might expect, the literary references are abundant, from Gogol to Fitzgerald to Hans Christian Andersen and plenty in between. Ninety minutes of life reflections from a writer like Gopnik are sure to produce such a thing, even if they end up as nice decorations and not drivers of narrative or theme.
The set is a microphone in a stand and a bench to hold a bottled water. Before the show starts Gopnik recruits a volunteer from the audience to help him mark a 9 foot by 11 foot section of stage with blue painter’s tape. We later learn those were the dimensions of Gopnik’s 1980’s garden apartment. He uses that space quite well in stories that take place in the apartment, giving the audience a great sense of both the challenges of such confined living, and the inventive ways he and Parker utilized the space. For stories taking place outside of that apartment, it’s just blue tape on the floor. A large movie screen is on the back wall above him and remains covered by a curtain for most of the show. At the midway point the curtain parts and we get images of Gopnik and Parker, of New York in the 80’s, of that 9×11 apartment. This was a nice palate cleanser and a sweet touch of romance before we moved on to the Children’s Gate section. There were also brief dips to black in between stories in both halves of the show. I suppose this gave Gopnik a chance to drink from that water and reminds the audience to applaud. I’ve seen other solo shows use this tactic. I don’t think I’ve ever felt it was necessary. This show is no exception.
I bet there’s more meat on the bone of most of these stories. Focusing in on a few, maybe even dedicating more time to just the first half or second half of stories, would have given him the opportunity to extract more flavor from each, raising the audience experience from pleasant towards sumptuous. Still, there are worse ways to spend an evening than listening to a writer the caliber of Adam Gopnik, with his biography and bibliography, wax nostalgic about his time in the city he clearly loves.
Catherine Burns directed the piece. She is the artistic director of The Moth, the gold standard leader of autobiographical storytelling on stages, in print, on your radio and wherever you download podcasts. Her contribution was likely to stitch together these days in a life to help Gopnik find some kind of a structure. Towards the end of the show, Gopnik revisits the block where he and his wife shared that first New York City apartment. I can see that as a bit of a Moth enhancement, an encouragement for Gopnik to take us back to the beginning, remind us how he’s changed. That’s an arc that The Gates surely needed.
The Gates: An Evening of Stories with Adam Gopnik runs to January 14 in Under the Radar. More production info can be found here.