By ELIZA BENT
The Downtown Loop, which runs through Nov. 16 at the 3LD Art Center, may evoke tour bus circuit in lower Manhattan, but Queens-born playwright Ben Gassman isn't interested in typical tourist fare. He's been a certified New York City bus tour guide since 2005, and he often feels at odds with his flock. "You want them to look down but instead they look up," he says with a sigh.
Though double-deckers pass the main sights, they never take alternate routes like Soho's Green Street or Chinatown's Doyer Street. "There's a constant conflict as a tour guide. Even if something's not true, you want to tell stories that embody the sensibility and soul of the city, while the majority of tourists just want to get to Century 21 and see the World Trade Center," Gassman says.
The Downtown Loop, a "virtual bus tour" of a show, began as a joke among Gassman and his tour guide pals. "We would talk about a 'f--k you' tour for the tourists," he says. "That's how the play began, as a gentle 'f--k you' tour. But the world around the tour grew over time." As the play developed, autobiography swerved into densely rich language games and a wider world of characters.
These include a tour guide-in-training, an Israeli salesman, an Egyptian hot dog vendor, the tour guide's ex-girlfriend, beautiful female foreign tourists, and of course, the everyman tour guide himself. Audience members sit on a "stage bus" that is surrounded on three sides by video shot from an actual double-decker. (Jared Mezzocchi designed the video.) Though sights such as Times Square are familiar, the tour feels entirely personal. When the tour guide points out St. Vincent's Hospital, he praises its past and how it once served a whole community before being remade into luxury condos. Later the bus sits under a highway and the guide gestures to Queens, "over there," rattling off statistics that feel factual and personal. "By coupling the language to a pretty literal representation of the city, we get to watch the tour guide struggle to do his job as he is supposed to and see his imperative shift. We get to watch and hear these moments of unhinging," Gassman says.
The clearest moments of unhinging are when the tour guide runs into his ex-girlfriend and endures awkward conversation. He tells his herd, "I'm gonna go swimming," at which point the video and sound go murky. The tour guide, distracted from heartbreak, takes solace in seducing foreign women. The audience gets to see these botched attempts not only on the surrounding video, but also through the double-decker's plexiglass floor, since events are filmed live below.
The tour guide-in-training, played by Sam Soghor, who also happens to be a certified New York City bus tour guide, serves as a foil to the cynical and jaded tour guide (Greg Carere). "The director Megan Finn and I knew that Sam couldn't be the tour guide because he disagreed with so much of what the tour guide says," Gassman says. "So Sam and I sat down at a bar and talked about giving tours. I took a lot of what Sam said and wove it into a conversation about how a hypothetical tourist, Jerry, from Jupiter, Florida, should be dealt with."
These philosophical debates are humorous interludes, but they also slyly allude to bigger questions about how to present the city and what a tour guide's true obligations are. "Excuse me, I'm sorry," the trainee says to the frustrated tour guide when asking for a particular date or fact. As the line is repeated it becomes funnier and more tragic.
"The repetition of the loop is a big part of the world of the play," says Gassman. "It's about actually loving the city but getting fed up at the parts that the tourists want to see. And of course there's a commitment to 'nostalgia flexing' as some kind of sport for what may or may not have been."
Eliza Bent is a writer and performer based in New York City
Photo by Todd Carroll