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Dimes Square and Other Plays
by matthew gasda
applause, 284 pages, $22.95

Are you religious?” alcoholic rich kid Jay asks high-achieving Ellie. “Spiritual,” she replies.

JAY: So you go to yoga twice a week—?
ELLIE: Essentially.
JAY: Yeah see that’s garbage.
ELLIE: It’s better than nothing.
JAY: No, it is nothing.
ELLIE: Probably.

Matthew Gasda, in whose play Quartet this exchange appears, is one of those contemporary writers who, despite having no theological agenda whatsoever, find themselves unable to avoid the topic of God. Mostly, as in that exchange, God is present by his absence: an unexplored possibility, a half-felt need. But there is always the chance that he will make a more dramatic entrance.

It is difficult to introduce Gasda’s work without making it sound completely obnoxious. He first came to notice as part of New York’s downtown “Dimes Square” scene, a much-discussed phenomenon that evaporated before anyone could quite say what it was—opinions varied from “a unique coming-together of exciting young creators” to “a bunch of posers talking about each other on the internet”—though not before Gasda had written Dimes Square, the title play of this debut collection. As with the other plays, nothing much happens in it, apart from people sitting around talking about themselves and each other. Even when the characters are not actually twentysomething New Yorkers, they could be: They’re neurotic artists or differently-neurotic corporate types, given to telling each other things like, “I’m just not going to validate your narcissistic delusions” or “When I go literally insane, you have only yourself to blame.”

Yet oddly enough, the plays never feel self-indulgent or claustrophobic. Instead, they are intelligent, light-footed, and witty. The great British playwright Jez Butterworth, a ruthless critic of contemporary theatre, has observed that the usual experience of going to a work of new drama is the feeling that one is watching the cast, crew, director, and writer laboriously push a large boulder up a hill. A successful play, by contrast, is a boulder rolling downhill, with an irresistible momentum of its own. Gasda’s boulders sometimes roll slowly—his characters are self-conscious, jaded, ironic—but they are definitely moving downhill.

And, to complete the metaphor, as the plays gather pace they get more dangerous. Essential to Gasda’s work is its willingness to skate in the direction of thin ice. The simplest example is his very occasional treatment of trans issues. I have no idea what Gasda’s views are on the subject; his characters are supportive, in a vague, shoulder-shrugging way, of people they know who have transitioned. But what is noticeable is that they do not take the officially approved approach of validation, affirmation, asking about preferred pronouns, and so on. They tend to say precisely the wrong thing:

JAY: I mean, isn’t your brother trans?
ELLIE: My sister now—
JAY: Right, same thing—

Ellie immediately corrects him—“Uh no, not same thing”—but it’s too late, the can of worms has already been opened. What, in fact, does change when someone decides to switch sex? The question hangs awkwardly in the air. Similarly, from Afters (not included in this collection):

CHRIS: I had an unhappy dinner date with my daughter tonight.
IRIS: I didn’t know you had a daughter.
CHRIS: The artist previously known as my son.
IRIS: Ooh, right.

It’s not that Chris has some principled objection to gender transition; but his flippant, resigned, almost sardonic tone is, again, not the way one is supposed to talk. And the word “artist” carries a whisper—just a whisper—of the idea that transitioning may be an act of self-creation rather than self-discovery.

Insecurity is to Gasda what water lilies were to Monet. Sometimes it’s insecurity of the personal kind (never mind the context; just listen in to the voices):

ELIZABETH: I’ve made a vow not to talk about TV in social situations—actually—
NICK: Whoops—
ELLIE: That’s a little judgy . . .
JAY: I mean, have you met her?
ELIZABETH: I just prefer books . . . I mean I have a literature degree, right? Why not use it?
NICK: She said it!
JAY: Everybody’s got to take a shot now!
ELIZABETH: Do I really bring that up every time we get together?
ELLIE: Honestly, yeah, you do.

At other times, the insecurities are those lying beneath the surface of twenty-first-century Western society. The “classic and universal function” of the theater, Gasda has written, is “the purging of communal anxieties.” And the vastest communal anxiety of all is that, though we condemn the past as ignorant and superstitious, we sometimes get the sensation that the past has a better right to judge us. In Ardor (not included here), a character muses that “if a medieval peasant was beamed into the present world, they’d be so horrified by the loss of the sacred that they’d immediately kill themselves.” To be modern is to have banished the sacred; but in these plays it keeps creeping back, impossible either to expunge or to embrace. One character is thinking about becoming a nun; another is guilty about skipping Mass; one remarks that “participating in a catastrophic civilization” is “almost like going to church,” to which another replies: “Almost being the operative word.” To have seen through modernity is not to have found faith. But it is better than nothing.

An exchange in Afters gets at another aspect of this. The characters are having a sexually explicit conversation—there are quite a few of these in Gasda’s work—and Iris objects:

IRIS: Ladies, please, I have sensitive ears. I don’t want to have to confess this conversation to Father Michael tomorrow.
MIA: Are you serious?
IRIS: I’m always serious.

“Are you serious?” is the question that haunts these plays. Or, in the case of boyfriends and girlfriends: “Are we serious?” To express a serious view is to risk being wrong; to form a serious attachment is to risk being humiliated. Safer to be ironically detached, self-deprecating, and cautious about what you reveal of yourself. “I want you,” Monika tells Adam in Berlin Story. “That’s so embarrassing,” he replies. Social life becomes a strange, watchful dance with constantly changing steps.

Gasda is in his mid-thirties, and these are very much plays of a digital era—not so much for the overt references to social media and smartphones, which are sensibly kept within limits, but because they are about the difficulties of exhibiting a false self. Or rather, a self that is true enough that the person behind it wants it to be loved, but false enough that he can limit the damage when it is rejected. Virtues, like vices, become tokens in the game, as in this conversation between the journalist Klay and the artist Rosie in Dimes Square:

ROSIE: You’re a good person Klay. Don’t seek approval from people who are beneath you.
KLAY: I’m not particularly good; I’m just weak.
ROSIE: At least you’re honest.
KLAY: I’m not even that. Not even close. The fact that you’re even at the point where you’re saying that is a sign that I’ve manipulated you a little bit. Being a good guy or whatever is my grift.
ROSIE: We’ve all got a thing.

As on social media, the fact that everyone has a “thing” makes authenticity and honesty priceless, until authenticity and honesty become performances in their own right.

Is there a way out of this hall of mirrors? Some of Gasda’s characters seek an escape in sex, but in general sex only complicates their problems. Some look for escape in artistic creation—such as the filmmaker Terry in Dimes Square, who has been celibate for two years because it’s “good for [his] work,” who talks bluntly and unironically about wanting to defeat his professional rivals, and who complains that “people go insane when you take yourself seriously.” But Gasda’s artists tend to be either desperately insecure or disturbingly cold-hearted, or a bit of both.

Nevertheless, it is an artist, the painter Andre in Ardor, who hints that there really is an escape from irony and self-consciousness. (Ardor is not included in this collection, a pity since it is Gasda’s closest approach to the sublime.) Andre owns a farmhouse where he lets a group of young actors, artists, and writers, including his niece Chloe, hang out every summer. He is self-sufficient, aloof, unflappable, whereas they are insecure and goofy. And he challenges his young friends to imagine a world in which the screens on which they project themselves are taken away: “Like, what if the Internet crashed, what if a meteor knocked it out . . .” Only then, he suggests, could they really aspire to an “infinite passion.” The young artists are horrified by this thought experiment. Andre doesn’t pursue the point, but heads to bed, mentioning before he goes that tonight is a good night to see shooting stars—the Perseids meteor shower. “What if a meteor knocked it out . . .” A little hint has been dropped: There is something outside the world that is big enough, serious enough, beautiful enough to smash the whole hall of mirrors to pieces. But nobody cares or bothers to go outside.

A year passes, and in the play’s closing moments the group has returned to the house. Andre has died in the intervening time, but he has left an unexpected last testament: a letter to his niece in which he tells her, “You’ve always driven me crazy with all your questions,” and that now he will give her a direct answer. “God’s faith in you is the life He gives you, that’s why you feel so bad wasting it. There is no way to manipulate external circumstances to make His love go away, to separate the life from the faith, and make that love into something less than a miracle.” As this somewhat garbled but unmistakably serious testament is read out, it appears to have made no impression. “I just farted, sorry,” is the only response from the other characters.

And yet, a few moments later, when they remember the Perseids are on show tonight, the whole group rushes offstage to see the stars fall from the sky. 

Dan Hitchens is a senior editor at First Things.

Image by Johan Larsson licensed via Creative Commons. Image edited and cropped. 

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