Bay Street Theater and Sag Harbor Center for the Arts opens its 24th season with the world premiere of Alena Smith’s The New Sincerity, directed by Bob Balaban. A biting, brutally honest comedy about the blurred line between believing in something and jumping on the bandwagon, The New Sincerity is a daring new work that serves as a strong start to the summer Mainstage season.
Smith tells a fascinating coming-of-age tale for the 20s–30s crowd. Clearly inspired by the Occupy movement, her characters come to life with differing opinions and worldviews that change over the course of the 85-minute play. The New Sincerity tells the story of Rose (Justine Lupe), an up-and-coming writer in Manhattan who has just published an essay in Asymptope, a hip new literary journal. When hotshot editor Benjamin (Teddy Bergman) offers her a spot in the next issue, Rose wants to write about “The Movement,” a protest by young people going on in the park near their office. Benjamin doesn’t support The Movement, especially since his fiancée Sadie is about to publish a book about the failures of modern activism. Meanwhile, outspoken intern Natasha (Elvy Yost) attempts to goad Rose into stealing the smarmy Benjamin away from Sadie, and Rose finds her world turned upside down after meeting Django (Peter Mark Kendall), a charismatic young activist who is as passionate about his causes as he is about women. As the four characters become deeply entrenched in The Movement, Rose starts to realize that the world around her isn’t necessarily what she thought it was.
The cast is very strong, with each performer turning his or her character into very real individuals who feel familiar. Lupe, who is onstage for most of the evening, deftly crafts a complex character who knows what’s right and wrong but doesn’t always do the right thing. Idealistic but never naive, Lupe grounds Rose with a humanity and relatability not often seen in the millennial world she inhabits. Kendall is hilariously vague as Django, a modern-day hippie who manages to talk a lot and not say much at all. His constant criticisms of societal norms are the subject of several laughs throughout the evening, such as his convoluted faux-academic explanation for referring to a woman he knows as “Dragon” instead of “her” or “she.” Bergman is appropriately slimy as Benjamin, whose every move is calculated and premeditated to get what he wants. As Natasha, Yost nearly steals every scene she’s in as she integrates social media terms and internet-era language into even the most serious conversation.
The production is elegantly understated, with a simple interior set accentuated by a collage of flags, posters, rebels, peace signs and other “activist” symbols. Balaban’s smooth and concise direction creates a lived-in world for the characters; nothing any character does ever feels staged or choreographed. Smith’s dynamic and layered script gives every actor a chance to shine, as characters slowly reveal truths about themselves and the world around them without feeling overwritten. The strong script is filled with moments that run the gamut from hilarious to poignant, and no character is simply good or bad. But it is Rose who goes through the most interesting evolution, as she learns tough lessons about “sincerity.” The final tableau, featuring Rose alone onstage, is thought-provoking and touching while still being somewhat ambiguous.
The New Sincerity continues Bay Street Theater’s recent commitment to presenting challenging, exciting new work to East End audiences. This timely and fun play is a great start to what’s sure to be another successful season.
The New Sincerity runs through June 14 at Bay Street Theater. Other plays this season include the East Coast premiere of Five Presidents, The Darrell Hammond Project and Grey Gardens: The Musical. For tickets and more information, go to baystreet.org.