Written and Performed by Robert Galinsky; Directed by Jay O. Sanders
Off Off Broadway, Solo Show
Runs through 12.17.17
Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street
by Ran Xia on 10.31.17
Robert Galinsky in The Bench. Photo by Aidan Grant.
BOTTOM LINE: Galinsky's vital solo piece, based on real people, is the most important kind of urban voyeurism.
The word "theatre" comes from "theatron," a Greek word meaning "seeing place," and Galinsky wrote The Bench for the homeless, so that their lives can be illuminated, and they can be seen. Indeed, it's a heartbreaking and difficult truth to admit that we hardly see or hear the homeless, who, much like the city's sewer rats, rummage through grey areas for scraps to survive, and disappear into the sidewalks. If you enjoy the work of Anna Deavere Smith, or are an active reader of those "Humans of New York" posts, you're in for a treat. Galinsky's solo piece isn't taken verbatim from his interviews, but it is based on true stories and real people. And the respect and compassion that Galinsky has for his subjects are readily apparent.
The stage at the Cherry Lane is framed by sundry illustrations from Daphne Arthur's graphic novel (based on the play): the Brooklyn bridge, a storefront, someone's worn out pair of high heels—quintessential NYC. Seen almost through a sepia filter, the atmosphere is accented with perky music of the 80s. Time rewinds a few decades to 1987, the height of the AIDS epidemic (and right after Trump's The Art of the Deal), and a promenade of the city unfolds around a single bench. There, Galinsky transforms himself into a living ghost, complete with a strand of coral around his neck and layers of poorly fitted clothes.
The chameleonic Galinsky transforms between various distinct personas with perfect control and ease. His familiarity with his subjects, or better yet, muses, makes The Bench the article of love it has become. You see Graveyard: the Vietnam Vet, the foodie, the man who lost everything after going to prison for aggravated assault. He was supposed to be the victim, since the teenager he ended up injuring was robbing his shop, but once he's left the premises of the robbery, he became the perp himself. He became a grave digger after getting out, hence the nickname.
You see JD, the truck driver who lost his livelihood after an accident. You see Mark, squeamish and duplicitous, the product of years of ill-advised psychotherapy, electric shocks and all. And you see Joe, the merchant marine veteran who was once hailed an "American Hero" for saving every last Japanese sailor in distress, despite his own injured leg. He is now on an "anonymous march to the grave." "I'm friendly," says Joe, "But not social. It's a good way to be." It's Valentine's Day, and Joe is carrying around a big heart, literally—it's an empty heart-shaped candy box, intended for Lorraine, a former English Lit teacher who got mixed up in scandal and ended up becoming an HIV+ drug addict and prostitute.
You hear about the tragedies of each of these examples of the city's human refuse, and witness that even in the bleakest moments of life, romance quietly blossoms. It puts a smile on your lips and moisture in your eyes. The last words of the play come from Joe: "I ain't dead," he says. He speaks for them all—the homeless are not dead; deliberately ignored perhaps, and even detested, but not dead. And each one of them has a story that needs to be heard.
(The Bench plays at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, through December 17, 2017. The running time is 65 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Sundays at 7. There are no performances 11/5 and 12/3; additional performance Tuesday 12/5 at 7. Tickets are $59 and are available at thebenchplay.com or by calling 212-352-3101.)
The Bench is written and performed by Robert Galinsky. Directed by Jay O. Sanders. Original Graphic Images by Daphne Arthur. Audio Design by Deep Singh. Presented by Chris Noth and Barry "Shabaka" Henley.