What makes a Brooklyn bar?
Is it the wood? Is is the draft list that features only craft beer and local breweries? Is it the bartender, whose surly, I’ve-seen-it-all disposition seems out of sync with his youth? And which of these things explains why you find yourself so hopelessly drawn through the door, night after night, to pull up a stool at your neighborhood joint and order the same thing you can’t nearly afford?
These questions form the partial premise of [PORTO], a new play by Kate Benson running at the Bushwick Starr through Feb. 4, as part of the Exponential Theater Festival. “A neighborhood bar in a gentrifying outpost of a major American City,” reads the play’s tagline. “I know this will end badly, but for now, it tastes really good.”
The “city” turns out to be a borough: The narrator eventually admits that we are in fact in Brooklyn, albeit only once, as if the city name could be supplanted were the show picked up for a run in Portland or Chicago. But Brooklyn is an easy sell for [PORTO]; the bar is a cliché so self-serious that it almost feels new again.
“Edison lights glowing,” Benson narrates. “Serious food. Serious beer. Serious booze. … You know the place.”
While the acting in [PORTO] is certainly strong on all counts — Ugo Chukwu is especially stellar as “Raphael the Waiter” and later as Simone de Beauvoir — it’s the writing that draws you in like the promise of a stiff pour on a cold night.
When characters are not inside the bar, they are alone on the street, dimly toplit by a streetlamp and pondering their existence, their desires. The first time we meet the play’s heroine, Porto, we watch her silently debating whether or not to go into the bar, using only her facial expressions while Benson narrates. “I’m going to stop drinking so much coffee, wine, whiskey, tequila, vodka…” quickly becomes “Sitting alone at a bar is a feminist act. Do it.”
The word “Porto” could mean a lot of things in the context of Benson’s play. It translates from various languages into “safe harbor” (Italian), a bastardized conjugation of the verb “to bear” (Spanish) and perhaps a slight Romantic flourish on “porte,” the French word for door. It’s also worth noting that within the first few lines of the play, Benson refers to this neighborhood bar as “bouchey,” a made-up portmanteau of bourgeois and douchey.
Much like a portmanteau, the play’s myriad themes combine to create one that is entirely unique to Benson’s play. It is a meditation on the examined life. It invites us to consider living by turns more consciously and more recklessly. We relate to Porto, the woman content with her life but occasionally beckoned by a distant call to adventure, a call to become the heroine of her narrative instead of just a looker-on.
More to the point, [PORTO] says everything about Brooklyn. The stuff you love hearing over and over, and the stuff you don’t. Much ado is made of the artisanal food offerings at this bar, for example. Doug the Bartender won’t allow his customer to put ketchup on it. By the same token, much ado is made of the anti-feminist implications of offering to make the man you slept with coffee the next morning. It’s complex. You agree. You disagree. You’re wrong, no matter which way you slice it. And at the end of the day, slaughtered geese or not, bank account or nah, you’re probably going to order the foie gras sausage.
To those just visiting the city, or unfamiliar with the notion of a neighborhood bar that also tokenizes gentrification, [PORTO] may seem cranky, like a narrow skewering of Brooklyn bar culture you’d expect from someone who only occasionally makes the “schlep” to the borough. But the play quickly devolves into something much more profound, and still, impossibly familiar, about our search for meaning under the Edison bulbs.
[PORTO] runs Wed – Sat at The Bushwick Starr (207 Starr St.) through Feb. 4. Shows begin at 8pm and run 90 minutes without an intermission. Tickets are $20.