In the fall of 2020, a young playwright named Matthew Gasda decided to entertain some friends by staging a one-act drama on a grassy hill in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn. The masked audience quickly realized that what they were watching was obviously relatable: Performed on a picnic blanket by seven actors, “Circles” featured a group of pandemic-weary friends who gather around a a wine one evening in a city park to catch up on their lives.
After the applause, Mr. Gasda, 33, passed around a hat for donations. Then he started plotting his next play.
A few months later, he unveiled “Winter Journey,” a drama loosely based on Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” in a chilly Bushwick backyard. Then came “Quartet,” a comedy about two couples swapping partners, which he staged in a TriBeCa apartment. He staged his next play, “Ardor,” about friends getting together for a country weekend in a loft in Greenpoint. He was far from Broadway, or even Off Broadway, but he was grateful for the attention.
“I had long staged plays in New York City in anonymity,” he said, “but during the pandemic, I became like the rat who survived nuclear weapons. there was no more competition.
In the spring of 2021, it fell into a downtown social scene that was forming at the eastern edge of Chinatown, at the junction of Canal and Division streets. What he witnessed inspired his next work, “Dimes Square”.
“Dimes Square became the anti-Covid hotspot, and so I went there because that’s where things were happening,” Mr Gasda said.
Named after Dimes, a restaurant on Canal Street, the micro-stage was filled with skateboarders, artists, models, writers and telegenics in their twenties who didn’t seem to have any jobs at all. A hyperlocal print newspaper called The Drunken Canal gave voice to what was happening.
Mr. Gasda, who had grown up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with dreams of making it in New York, threw himself into the moment, taking on his role as the stage’s turtleneck playwright. And as he worked as a tutor to support himself by day and immersed himself in Dimes Square by night, he began to consider a play.
Set in a Chinatown loft, “Dimes Square” chronicles the little stabs in the back of a group of selfish artists and media industry types. It’s filled with references to local haunts like Clandestino Bar and Metrograph Theater, and its characters include an arrogant writer who drinks Fernet – Mr. Gasda’s spirit of choice – and a failed novelist who snorts cocaine with people who are half his age.
Adding a touch of realism, Mr. Gasda cast friends in key roles: Bijan Stephen, journalist and podcast host, portrays a frustrated magazine editor; Christian Lorentzen, a literary critic, plays a haggard Gen X novelist; and Fernanda Amis, whose father is author Martin Amis, plays the daughter of a famous writer.
Since opening the play in February in a Greenpoint loft, “Dimes Square” has become an underground hit that consistently sells out performances. People viewing the show include insiders eager to see their scene engaged on stage, as well as those who kept track of it from afar via Instagram. Writers Gary Indiana, Joshua Cohen, Sloane Crosley and Mr. Amis were all in attendance.
The play, which is due to begin Friday in Manhattan at a SoHo apartment, also earned Mr. Gasda his first big story, a review by Helen Shaw in New York Magazine’s Vulture, which compared him to Chekhov and said: “Gasda appointed himself playwright of the Dimes Square scene.”
After the assessment was posted online, Mr Gasda received a text message from a friend on his battered flip phone congratulating him on being “nicknamed our Chekhov”. But even as Mr. Gasda attempts to succeed in New York literature, something about the noise surrounding his play troubles him.
“I’m grateful for the attention, but people who come to see the show seem to think the play is complicit in the scene, and that’s totally misrepresented by them,” he said. “The play is pessimistic about the scene.”
Moments before the cast took the stage at a recent performance, audience members sipped cheap red wine and chatted on the Twitter chatter surrounding the show. As the lights dimmed, Mr Gasda, dressed in a tweed jacket with elbow patches and his usual scarf, reminded his guests to pay for their drinks on Venmo.
After the performance, as the loft emptied, audience member Joseph Hogan, a 29-year-old filmmaker, commented: “The likability of these characters is irrelevant to me,” he said. declared. “What’s important to me is if their insecurities are relatable. And as someone who moved to this city from another place and is trying to make it here in New York the way they are, I feel like I can identify with them.
“If they’re not considered likable,” he continued, “then neither am I. And that’s fine with me.”
The cast of the play went to their usual bar, Oak & Iron. There, Mr. Gasda nursed a Fernet while Mr. Lorentzen passed on an evaluation of the show.
“A journalist came to me and said she thought you were just another Cassavetes rehash,” Mr Lorentzen said, referring to John Cassavetes, the famous independent filmmaker of the 1970s and 1980s. “But afterwards, she said to me: ‘No, he understood. He does his own thing.
“I already got Cassavetes references,” Mr. Gasda said. “But it’s not my job to be interested in what people think. My job is to keep secreting and writing.
He took a sip.
“It’s great that we’re getting attention,” he said, “but it’s not like I’m making money from it. I still have my day job.
“It reminds me of that story I heard about a guy seeing ‘Einstein on the beach,'” he continued, referring to Philip Glass’s 1976 opera. had to fix his toilet, so he called a plumber. The plumber comes, and the guy asks him, ‘Aren’t you Philip Glass?’ Glass said, ‘Yeah, but I’m not making any money from the show yet.’ »
Mr. Gasda’s quest to become a New York playwright began during his teenage years in Bethlehem, where his father was a high school history teacher and his mother a paralegal. He grew up watching Eagles games on TV with his dad and hearing stories about a grandfather’s days as a steelworker. He became bookish, compulsively reading “Ulysses” and devouring the works of poet John Ashbery and novelist William Gaddis.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Syracuse University, Mr. Gasda hopped on a bus to Port Authority. He spent his first day walking aimlessly until he came across Caffe Reggio, a Greenwich Village institution that was once a gathering place for Beat Generation bohemians and poets. And there, even among New York University students doing their homework, he felt at home. He quickly moved into an apartment in Bushwick and began his reinvention.
He wrote on a Smith Corona electric typewriter. He rocked the scarf and the turtleneck at literary evenings. He hung out on the shelves of the Strand and made Caffe Reggio his office, writing parts of more than a dozen plays there. To make the rent, he taught English at a charter school in Red Hook and worked as a debate coach at Spence, the private school on the Upper East Side. He’s now a college prep tutor and lives in a book-crammed apartment in Brooklyn’s East Flatbush neighborhood.
But even after a decade in the city, he could bring few people besides friends and family to see his work – until his luck changed during the pandemic, when young New Yorkers, weary of Netflix, seemed ready for live theater.
Now, in addition to the second series of “Dimes Square,” another of Mr. Gasda’s plays, “Minotaur,” is set to open soon in a small venue at Dumbo. An early, intimate staging of the production included actress Dasha Nekrasova, who has a recurring role on “Succession” and co-hosts the provocative political and cultural podcast “Red Scare.”
After a recent rehearsal of “Minotaur” in Midtown, Ms. Nekrasova and fellow cast member Cassidy Grady huddled to smoke in the street as Mr. Gasda chatted with them. They discussed the current debut novel, “Fuccboi” by Sean Thor Conroe, as well as the new play that was taking shape.
“‘Minotaur’ is a kind of Ibsenian drama,” Ms. Nekrasova said. “I am excited about Gasda as it represents a burgeoning interest in theater, post-Covid, in the city.”
Mr. Gasda snuck into a nearby sports bar. He ordered a glass of Fernet and, as he contemplated the impending series of “Dimes Square”, he suggested that the public should think of his play differently.
“At the end of the day, ‘Dimes Square’ is a comedy,” he said. “I don’t try to send people to the therapist. And I’m not saying I’m better than the people in my room.
“The other side of the coin is about efforts in New York,” he added. “So it’s something universal as well.”