REVIEW: Under the Radar Festival – Adam Gopnik’s “The Gates”
Adam Gopnik began his career writing for the New Yorker. As he quips in his new one man show, “they just didn’t know it yet”.
That gumption won out, though, as he became a staff writer in 1986; his writings since have spanned fiction, non-fiction, criticism, and commentary—all invariably imbued with his hallmark wit and signature perspective. Mr. Gopnik—that rarest of species: a public intellectual—has also authored multiple collections of essays, served as a lyricist and libretto writer, and is active on the lecture circuit.
Drawing from two of his collections of essays, “At the Strangers' Gate” (2017) and “Through the Children's Gate” (2011) (both allusions to named entrances of Central Park), “The Gates: An Evening of Stories with Adam Gopnik” is playing five performances as part of the Public Theater’s 14th annual Under the Radar Festival, which aims to give a platform for both new artists and new forms of theatre.
While Mr. Gopnik is a well-known and celebrated literary personality, in this festival, he delivers his celebrated work in a new way, proving that the experience of reading good writing is distinct from the experience of having good writing read to you, or, even better, delivered from memory by the author. The performative quality of this latter form makes it theatre, and it turns out that when in the right hands, with the right material, it is glorious.
In a 90-minute monologue directed by Catherine Burns (Artistic Director of The Moth) and divided into two parts and roughly five vignettes, Mr. Gopnik has created a delightful evening in tribute to the City of New York and the passage of time. Whether by design or because of a truncated performance schedule (Under the Radar hosts 26 shows in 5 venues over the course of 12 days), moments before the show’s start, Mr. Gopnik asked for an audience volunteer to assist him in measuring out a 9x11 foot box on the stage floor of the Newman Theatre using blue painter’s tape.
That box becomes “the Blue Room”, a visual representation of the square footage of Mr. Gopnik’s first New York apartment in 1980, a cockroach-infested garden (read: basement) studio he shared with his wife, Martha, for 3 and a half years as they scrappily sought a life of “flamboyant glamour” through heavy employment of romantic gestures and “poetry” (defined by Mr. Gopnik as “everything that adds to the meaninglessness of existence”). That apartment, and their arrival to New York from Montreal, becomes a touchstone of the piece. He gives a “tour” in part one, and a quick photo slideshow before part two confirms his every description.
Mr. Gopnik’s stories are, no surprise, expertly spun and delivered deadpan with a confident and unassuming air. Words like fictive, chiaroscuro, interstitial, and sapient effortlessly pepper his speech, as they do his writing, the density, specificity, and musicality of which are a pleasure to hear aloud. Highlights of the evening include tales of a perfectly tailored pair of pants lost in transit on 1st Avenue; a marriage-long fight over rare vs. done meat; an impromptu keynote speech at the mysterious “Pluralism and Individualism Conference” of 1985; his 3 year old daughter’s imaginary friend, Charlie Ravioli, who has a personal assistant and is always too busy to play with her; and the perils—and inadvertent lessons—of navigating a men’s steam room with his teenage son.
Each episode ends with a quiet-inducing button moment that brings the story together with an easy profundity as warm and satisfying as a hug. While you might be able to find most if not all of these stories among his published essays, the communal experience of sharing those quiet moments is lost when reading solitary, as is Mr. Gopnik’s charming stage presence. Many Under the Radar offerings go on to future stagings; I hope “The Gates” does, as it is unexpectedly and refreshingly entertaining, witty, and poignant.
“The Gates: An Evening of Stories with Adam Gopnik”
at the Newman Theater
as part of the Under the Radar Festival
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
New York, NY 10003
Wednesday, January 10th at 2pm
Friday, January 12th at 6pm
Saturday, January 13th at 4pm
Sunday, January 14th at 6pm