400 Years in Manhattan
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 2, 2007
400 Years in Manhattan is the most fun you can have touring this amazing island that we live and work on without having to board a bus, helicopter, or boat. Noah Diamond—better known to theatre audiences as half of Nero Fiddled, an activist theatre company and blog (director Amanda Sisk is the other half)— has put together a delightful and fascinating one-man show that relates his own experiences working as a tour guide as well as precisely what the title promises, i.e., a panoramic and engaging journey through the history of Manhattan.
Who will love this show? Fans of history, fans of New York, fans of architecture, fans of trivia, and fans of Nero Fiddled's pointedly Blue State satire. If I've left you out, read on...maybe your appetite will nevertheless be whetted.
This show is a feast of little-known history that's right under our noses, uncovered for us by a man who has made it one of his lifeworks to know this stuff. Did you know that Peter Stuyvesant planted a pear tree at the corner of (present-day) Third Avenue and 13th Street, and that it was destroyed in one of the brutal winters that came to NYC during the Civil War? Did you know that the reason Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in New Jersey was because dueling was illegal in New York City in 1804? Did you know that the Bank of New York building was the tallest in the world for about half-an-hour?
You'll discover all of this and much, much more in 400 Years in Manhattan. But it's more than just a treasure trove of arcana: it's a thoughtfully constructed one-man play, built from personal reminiscences along with the straight-up history. Diamond's performance is likable and good-humored; his writing is unfailingly intelligent, often quite funny, and sometimes authentically profound and wise. The presentation that Diamond and Sisk have provided for the show is outstanding—perhaps the most effective use of multimedia I've yet seen in the theatre, consisting of a remote-controlled slide show filled with illustrations of what's being talked about. At several points in the program, Diamond sits in the comfy-looking armchair that fills half of the modest but appropriate set and watches and listens along with us to several excellent video montages (my favorite of these, about the Harlem Renaissance, features a lovely recording of Ella Fitzgerald singing "Take the A Train").
It is, all in all, an evening that's thoroughly enlightening and entertaining—precisely what one hopes theatre will always be, and here perhaps a surprise since the package and subject are not intrinsically theatrical. 400 Years in Manhattan was one of the best times I've had in the theatre in quite a while, and I hope Diamond will see fit to run it for longer than its currently scheduled two more performances.