Set designers do wonders turning bare stages into rooms, landscapes, and environments of all kinds. But sometimes a production finds a setting already equipped with everything it needs. So it is with Repulsing the Monkey, billed accurately as “a new comedy set in a bar, at a bar, about so much more than bars.”
The White Horse Tavern in New York City’s Financial District sits on a site that has been a tavern since 1641. In Michael Eichler’s new play about gentrification, its third-floor bar stands in for Jablonski’s, a homey dive in Pittsburgh’s South Side Slopes neighborhood. The elder Jablonskis having recently died in a car accident, siblings Janey (Kim Katzberg) and Danny (Sergey Nagorny) are agonizing over what to do with the pub they’ve inherited.
The place has always just scraped by on the wallets of its working-class regulars. But it’s exactly the kind of affordable spot coastal newcomers are swooping in to redo and gentrify. An old family friend would like to buy it and keep it going, but two pairs of gentrifiers from New York and L.A. are likely to offer much more. So Danny convinces Janey to entertain those offers, and when they come in identical, the siblings pit the interlopers against one another to see who’ll increase their bid the most.
Katzberg and Nagorny make the siblings seem real and very appealing, while their somewhat expansive dialogue infuses the realism with touches of resonant poetry. (One can almost hear the voice of Eugene O’Neill muttering in the background.) Hopping over the bar, standing on tables, addressing individual audience members directly, Janey and Danny vividly sketch for us the atmosphere and the history of Jablonski’s – and the family dynamics of the Jablonskis.
As Danny matches wits with the supercilious visitors, the clash of cultures is played to comic effect. The New York and L.A. couples may be laughable stereotypes, but they’re rooted in real types we’ve all met in real life – yoga teacher, urban biking enthusiast, paternalistic community organizer. Kaila Wooten and Samuel Barnes Jaffe as Dylan (of course!) and Kylie are hilariously SoCal new-age, while Kylie’s mesmerizing seductive appeal to Danny fleshes out her character with comic earthiness. Meanwhile, New Yorkers Ethan (Emily Elizabeth Bennett) and Sophia (Asha Devi) bicker realistically while trying to maintain a united front.
Staged with the kind of energy that used to be called pizzazz, the production makes excellent use of the whole space. Noise from the crowded second-floor bar below – packed on a Friday night with scarily disease-oblivious young maskless partiers – trickles up at times, adding dimension. But being in the bar itself is enough to put us in the thick of the action. (See our interview with Creative Producer Ali Kennedy Scott.)
It’s all bitingly entertaining – until a nonsensical plot twist near the end, and a final surprise that doesn’t seem to jibe with the characters we’ve come to know and identify with. For most of the way, Repulsing the Monkey is a funny and captivating ride down the spiraling destiny of gritty neighborhoods that are “found” – and then ruined, for most of us – by moneyed invaders from richer parts of town or distant wealthy burgs.
As eviction moratoriums wind down and businesses struggle through a stubborn pandemic, the ability of more and more “regular folks” to stay afloat becomes ever more precarious. As we picture what the new owners will do with Jablonski’s, it’s hard not to think about what the next wave of change might be – the one that kicks them in turn, and their ubiquitous real-world analogues, in the teeth.
Repulsing the Monkey runs through Sept. 26 at the White Horse Tavern, NYC. Tickets are available at the show’s website.