nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 22, 2008
Ever since the Dutch traded some trinkets for Manhattan Island, the people who live in New York have been ambivalent about immigrants. The cycle of change has fueled the history and the growth of this city, and even if you wanted it to stop, there's probably nothing you could to do to make that happen. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't step back and think about what gentrification means to the gentrified and the gentrifier. This is precisely what solo performer Danny Hoch does in his timely, smart, funny, and very entertaining new play Taking Over.
Hoch actually speaks in his own voice during one of the ten monologues that comprise Taking Over, but the rest of the play gives equal time to folks who are being squeezed out and others who are doing the squeezing. On the one hand, he introduces us to Robert, a Polish-Puerto Rican native Brooklynite who is angry that his family is being forced out of the building they've lived in all their lives because it's being converted to a condo. On the other hand, there's Stuart, developer and self-appointed voice of reason, a man who thinks of himself as a sort of philanthropist because he builds houses rather than prisons ("It feels lonely. I'm like a lonely truth-telling humanitarian. Sitting alone in my penthouse, telling the truth.").
On the one hand, there's the Dominican limo dispatcher, rattling off directions and assignments in Spanish to his all-immigrant crew, serving a white clientele for the sake of upward mobility. And on the other hand, there's Marion, an elderly African American woman, who rolls with the punches as her neighborhood morphs into something she doesn't completely recognize:
This Cafe, you gotta make reservations for Brunch. I'm thinkin', where did all these people appear from—with reservations for brunch? I been in this neighborhood 50 years. Wasn't no BRUNCH happenin' here. People were SMOKING CRACK! People were eatin' Ding Dongs for dinner.
Spending time with Marion and Robert and some of the other people Hoch introduces us to in Taking Over, we remember what is already lost—and what more will be lost—as gentrification wreaks its inevitable and relentless change. These people are so easy to take for granted, to ignore; Marion hits the nail right on the head when she tells one of her girlfriends about the time she waited on line for an almond croissant and realized that none of the young white yuppies on line with her were seeing her. ("I was invisible," she says. "I really wasn't there, to any of 'em.")
But Stuart's the one with history and economics on his side. It's a little chilling when he says "in 20 years this city's only gonna be for the rich people. So if you want to stay here you better think about how you're gonna get rich."—chilling because it rings awfully true.
Hoch offers no solutions for the problems he poses in Taking Over; how can he, really? What he does is give us a great deal of food for thought, showing us the perspectives of these varied New Yorkers with razor-sharp insight, wit, and compassion. Under the direction of Tony Taccone, the show flies, with transitions from locale to locale managed with up-to-the-minute high-tech fades (the sets are by Annie Smart and the lighting and projections are by Alexander V. Nichols). Smart's costumes are simple, adding a single accessory to Hoch's basic black ensemble to help the performer inhabit each of his characters. Sound by Walter Trarbach and music by Asa Taccone complete the ambience, taking us from a Williamsburg community celebration to a street where a movie is being shot to Marion's stoop with remarkable felicity.
Most important, Hoch's work as both writer and actor here is superb: he gives us characters whose authenticity is unassailable, and he frames them within a show that never fails to entertain as it edifies and prods and pokes us.