HEART OF THE CITY
Written by Eric Lane
Directed by Martha Banta
An Orange Thought production
Through June 28, at the Theatre at 30th Street
259 West 30th Street
(212) 868-4444, or smarttix.com
BY JERRY TALLMER
Eric Lane writes a play like a magic lantern.
At least “Heart of the City,” his new play, is like a magic lantern; Ingmar Bergman’s magic lantern — a scene here, a scene there; two people, one person, three people, four people, piece by piece notching together. Then, suddenly interlocking like a surprise jigsaw puzzle. Instead of beautiful Swedes, however, you have ordinary Americans; New Yorkers — male, female, or in between; riding the #4 train in from Brooklyn to Manhattan; or waiting interminably for the doctor who’s to deliver the good verdict, or the bad; or taking off your shoes to relax in a massage chair in a hi-tech store under the eyes of a pretty salesgirl; or experiencing love through a window in the gaze of a soulful boa constrictor; or going with your brother to divide up all the stuff in that house where Mom, the survivor from Eastern Europe, lived and reigned for 43 years.
To me, the moment that jolts the whole play into life, like an unforeseen synthesizing burst of electricity, is the contact at the feet of Simon Bolivar between Jemma (a 14-year-old loner smarter than her years) and Elizabeth (a good-looking 40-something waiting for her date with a guy who is late).
Elizabeth fixes her lipstick.
JEMMA: that shit’ll kill ya.
ELIZABETH: Excuse me?
JEMMA: Lipstick. There are studies. Lab rats. The shit they developed, you don’t wanna know.
ELIZABETH: You’re right, I don’t.
JEMMA: Government studies. Big bucks for putting Revlon on rat lips. Some world, huh?
ELIZABETH; I suppose. Look, do you know what time t is? (Jemma extends her arm, showing her watch.)
ELIZABETH: Thank you.
JEMMA: You like Bolivar?
ELIZABETH(Re the watch): Yes, it’s lovely.
JEMMA: Not the watch. The General. Simon Bolivar. Big-ass statue and nobody even bothers. El Liberator. The George Washington of South America. Won independence for Bolivia, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Peru. You want a tic-tac?
ELIZABETH: No thank you. If you don’t mind…Why don’t you go away?…I’m sure there’s another plaque somewhere in the park you can memorize. Bethesda Fountain or Cleopatra’s Needle. A wealth of information for a young girl of your perspicacity.
JEMMA: Nah. I’m meeting somebody.
ELIZABETH: He won’t show.
JEMMA: He’s a she.
In fact the she is this very Elizabeth, and the gentleman Elizabeth is waiting for is not only very well known to the 14-year-old but he has dispatched her there to let Elizabeth know that he, her date, won’t show.
‘I love writing teenage characters. They seem to talk to me,” says playwright Lane, who declines to give his own age but can hardly be much more than twice a teenager. During rehearsal the actors loved that scene so well, he says, that it was dug into and developed further.
The Bolivar statue is where Sixth Avenue dead-ends at 59th Street. How well does Lane know that spot?
“I’m sure I’ve walked past it many times, like any other place in New York City,” he says. “Beautiful and amazing places you never notice. Well, this once I was out on a date there. My date said: ‘Let’s meet at the statue of Bolivar.’ ” Pause, pause. “It was the best part of the date.” A guy/guy date, if anyone wants to know.
Do you still take the #4 train to Manhattan?
“Not for a while. I now live in Sunnyside, Queens”— with partner Bob Barnett, a scenic artist and set designer. “The #7 train.”
Real people crisscross everywhere, like beating hearts, behind the characters in “Heart of the City.”
First there is Sue, also known (and separately played) as Shoshana, her younger self in the Old World, but now raging with impatience in the new against the oncoming of that dark night.
Is Sue in any way the playwright’s mother — the Phyllis Lane to whom he dedicates this work “with love and gratitude”?
“Yeah, definitely,” he says. “Part my mother, part my grandmother, part my aunt. My mother wasn’t an actress, though she did appear in Edgar’s Teenage Charm School radio show. I see pieces of my family members, pieces of my friends, pieces of myself, everywhere in here.
“So Sue is part my mom, part my grandmother Fritzi Kramer, part my great-aunt Sue Wischer. There was a time two years ago when they all passed away, my mother, my grandmother, and my aunt. A period of intense emotion and grief and joy and discovery and love.”
And your father?
“He had already passed away. He was Burt Lane. Who did different things at different times. In the textile business. Or on a Mrs. Smith’s Pie route. Or running a live poultry market in Harlem, Amsterdam and 125th Street. Yeah, sure, I worked there — as a cashier; Thanksgiving and Christmases during high school and college.”
Brooklyn-born, he grew up in Wantagh, Long Island, “ten minutes from Jones Beach.” College was a BA from Brown University. He’s written about a dozen plays, and has a whole correlative career as co-editor (with Nina Shengold) of 11 Penguin and Vintage volumes of other people’s plays.
I think somebody ought to put “Heart of the City” between book covers.