The Place We Built by Sarah Gancher is the winner of the New York Stage and Film Founder’s Award and the Clifford Odets Ensemble Play Commission. It was part of “7th Project,” a series of seven plays, installations, and site specific performances which examine “…the past and present of Budapest’s 7th District through an outsider’s eyes.” It was a part of history that I was unfamiliar with and realize we should be paying more attention to.
Set in a dingy club called “Seagull,” we sit on uncomfortable chairs thanks to Arnulfo Maldonado and Feli Lamenca. We have been sent back to Budapest’s 7th District, once a home to a flourishing Jewish community before World War II but the Holocaust has taken it’s toll. Learning about it’s humble beginnings, we are post-communist Budapest, as young bohemians squat reclaiming their Jewish identity that their parents’ generation abandoned after the Holocaust. The bohemians create a vibrant new subculture that combines big ideas and intense debates with wild parties. Friendships form and fray, couples come and go, people change as the neighborhood is gentrified, but when authoritarianism and anti-Semitism make a surprise comeback in the country at large, who will stay?
The space is smartly used thanks to director Danya Taymor, Her ensemble play accordion, guitar, and violin. They perform, in the apartment that once belonged to Ben’s (Tom Costello) Jewish grandmother. His comrades seem to be called as they come to play, talk, throw parties, do political puppet shows, read old letters, drink, take drugs and have sex. As the group grows the place becomes known and the bar that attracts the investable yuppie tourists, until they become a threat due to their political protest of Viktor Orbán, They are given 23 hours to vacate the establishment.
Here we get to know Aniko (Leta Renée-Alan), one of the founders who wants what’s best for the bar. She is the stereotypical person who is organized and yet complains when others are not. In a way she is miscast because the actress instead of inspiring is insipid. Isabelle Pierre plays a black American who is video documenting the history, but she forgot to take the lens cap off until half way through. They are both out shined by Kristin Friedlander ( who is also terrific in Wolf in the River) as Kata the tough girl who actually starts the whole process and ends up the only one moving on. This is completely cast by the Bats who are normally so rawly talented, this time they are uneven and out of their comfort zone.
Like most plays we have our gay character Mihaly (Brendan Dalton) a shy young man, who is dragged along for the ride. After running away he becomes the target of violent attacks due to the homophobia that along with Isabelle’s character threatens to erase the real story.
It is important to know Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has attempted to downplay the problem of rising anti-Semitism in his country, claiming the situation is worse in other European countries. “There are places where anti-Semitism claims the lives of schoolchildren .” Though it is true gay’s in Budapest are only tolerated, they are tolerated only as long as they don’t rock the boat. The show runs way to long at 2 hours and throws too many issues at us at once without going in depth leaving us to do the research.
The Place We Built, The Flea Theater, 21 White St. until May 23rd.