The first of three segments of Broken City: Wall Street by PopUP Theatrics’ closes with Patrick Phillips’s lovely poem Heaven:
It will be the past
and we’ll live there together.
Not as it was to live
but as it is remembered.
It will be the past.
We’ll all go back together.
Everyone we ever loved,
and lost, and must remember.
It will be the past.
And it will last forever.
It’s an appropriate choice for Broken City, a site-specific piece crisscrossing the Financial District, both for its temporally wrinkled content and its particular relevance to New York. Heaven was selected in 2014 for the MTA’s Poetry in Motion series, and now adorns stations and subway cars across the city. Penned after the death of Phillips’s father, it enacts the empty bliss of denial, the lie that life was ever as good as we remember it. In the drumbeat of that refrain—it will be the past—is the hope that a lie repeated may eventually become true.
Which it does, a bit contradictorily, in Broken City’s second segment. Romanian playwright Peca Stefan’s play stages three concurrent stories for separate audiences of six, one, and two. I was that lucky solo participant in the second story, which follows a former dancer now plagued by a sort of Memento-type amnesia on her daily neighborhood stroll. We learn that her condition seems to be the result of terrible tragedy. Her daughter has died and her husband has left, and their memories are triggered by various FiDi sights and sounds.
The other two stories, I have read but not witnessed. The first follows a former businessman (David Bower) who has lived as a vagrant since his career and family collapsed, and the third describes a future-obsessed investment banker (Edna Lee Figueroa) who, presumably, has a bad short term memory and struggles to live in the present.
Stefan’s script similarly struggles to keep track of its rather heavy-handed themes. We are to believe that Paolina (Orietta Crispino), the ex-dancer, is perpetually trapped in each present moment, with no recollection of what led up to it. But her story revolves around the spectres of memory. Her lost daughter (Sarah Louise Kane) shows up wherever she goes; the sound of her husband’s (Ilya Gerasimenko) saxophone draws her from one location to another and the bulk of her dialogue implies that she is caught in some pre-tragedy dream. The investment banker in the other story is ostensibly so focussed on advancing her career that she can’t remember, without her planner, where she’s supposed to be in any given moment; yet she is also, somehow, an expert deal-closer who uses Tony Robbins-style techniques to ignore any distraction from the present task.
It’s… confusing. And it doesn’t feel very honest. Each story closes with a monologue that more or less affirms its jumbled worldview. Then the spectator is invited to throw a penny into the fountain at 28 Liberty Street, which, depending on the story, will either preserve a memory forever, permanently erase an unwanted memory, or grant a “selfless wish” sometime in the future.
This rings false. I don’t quite understand why a play about the terrible consequences of amnesia would encourage the forgetting of one’s own tragedies. The fable of a man so caught up in his past that he drives away his loved ones seems to be cautionary, but the closing ritual offers validation rather than warning. There’s no sense that anything has been truly lost or gained; we glean hints of Paolina’s suffering, but everything interesting that happened to her occurs before the story begins.
More bizarrely, most of the action takes place in narration, delivered by a relay of nameless characters who guide the spectator from one location to another. This choice is difficult to reckon with on several levels. Though my chorus of narrators (Rachel Bennett, Alexandria King, Rafael Silva) were all talented performers, their narration distracts more than it illuminates. A line like “the sound came back, as if amplified by thousands of speakers” loses its power when I can hear the sound in question, especially if it turns out to be… not amplified through a thousand speakers. This sort of narration is wholly superfluous—there is no need to describe action when that action is, you know, being enacted.
A Greek chorus can provide valuable context, but Stefan’s descends into befuddling novelistic description, often describing interior thoughts or literally telling us what one character says to another when that character is right there, not saying it! The overall effect is a diminishment of urgency, an overwhelming sense that the spectator cannot be trusted to discern what’s going on. Omniscient narrators describing Paolina’s story—her present, her past—rob me of any chance to discover it with her. Often they reiterate that she has no inkling why certain sensations lure her from place to place. I wanted to shake them: “Clearly you know; just tell her!”
Broken City’s strengths perhaps lie in its subtler, psychological sensations, the ones untethered to dialogue or narrative. As I was shepherded from location to location by narrators who emerged from behind signs and around street corners, I experienced a strange metaphysical rush. Suddenly the entire street was implicated in Paolina’s story. That woman stepping out of a cab—was she an actress? That man peering into the windows of a cheese shop? The child dashing past? I grew dizzy, though that may have been the heat. I stopped listening to the text. I squinted as passersby stepped into Paolina’s path and out of it, unaware that for that moment they were more than themselves, were fictional constructs in a fictional world. If only the authored constructs were so entrancing.
For more information on Broken City, click here.