Jason got a teaching job in Columbus Ohio, and his Brooklyn pals are not taking the news well. He and his wife Michelle have packed up most of their stuff, and tonight the gang is coming over to Park Slope for a going-away fête among cardboard boxes and makeshift tables. Three couples, two singles and the hosts make up a party of ten. All of them are white, with the exception of Sanjeet (Imran Sheikh), a random addition to this group of old friends who met his date a few days ago on Match.com. The conversation is stilted and twee: regular folks trying too hard to pretend they’re starring in a Wes Anderson film. Rituals of greeting and farewell, stylized insults and pro forma self-deprecation politely hide the serious emotions, feelings of resentment, abandonment and failure, tearing at the guests’ well-heeled, well-bred, bourgeois façade.
Why We Left Brooklyn is a tragedy of manners in the realist tradition of Chekhov and Ibsen. For many reasons too numerous to list here, New York, specifically brownstone Brooklyn, has benefitted from nearly twenty years of gentrification. Whites from the suburbs and the flyover came to Brooklyn because it is the new cultural center of the United States. They brought with them their care for cultivating a unique, personal aesthetic, their middle-class values, and their families’ accumulated capital, which their grandparents took out of Brooklyn when they fled in the middle of the 20th century. Jason, Michelle and their friends got good, cheap college educations before the explosion of student debt and skyrocketing tuition; though they came from professionals, managers and business owners, they wanted to be tastemakers, writers and artists; and their worries over maintaining the middle class life of their youth in the face of yawning income inequality and fierce class competition has led them to despise themselves for having “first-world problems.”
Like the bygone days of Ibsen and Chekhov’s European upper-middle-class sophistication, our current social milieu (I am writing this review in Brooklyn) is ripe for ridicule. And we, the New Brooklynites, relentlessly ridicule ourselves as a reflexive ritual of self-authentication, for if there is one thing we hate, it’s a faker. The partygoers in Park Slope take turns testifying to their authenticity by gesture and affirmation. They alternately praise and despise yoga, fresh food, and theatre as being both the opportunity to experience authenticity and a possible trap for inauthenticity. Jason’s decision to “return” to Ohio (he seems to be from Pennsylvania originally) horrifies his friends, not because Ohio is the home of corporate food and Wal-Mart, but because Jason is symbolically giving up on the quest for self-improvement that is the foundation of this class’s identity and source of their feelings of self-worth.
In part, Why We Left Brooklyn is a lament for lost youth. “Fake it till you make it” only applies to those who think the future will justify their efforts. For Jason (played with grating realism by Andrew Schwartz), the time has come to admit that he will never “make it” as an actor. He will always be an amatuer — underpaid or unpaid. His friends also have this problem. His wife has published a book, but it’s topic isn’t “serious” literature; his best friend since college days landed a paying gig — as the voice for a Young Adult, books-on-tape fiction series; and Dawn, who brought Sanjeet into this typically dysfunctional elective family, took a promotion at work for a better title and more pay — though she worries it means she’s finally and fully sold out her dreams.
Kyle Ancowitz’s deft realization of Matthew Freeman’s airtight script will make everyone over the age of thirty who holds a liberal arts degree squirm uncomfortably. But it’s a good kind of discomfort, a salutary kind. Why We Left Brooklyn reminds those of us who haven’t achieved super-stardom that our struggles and our problems are no less valid because someone else has had it worse, or has been a bigger success, or has moved out of the borough.
Through September 21st at 4th Street Theater.