Repulsing the Monkey Review: A play about gentrification, staged at the White Horse Tavern

“Repulsing the Monkey,” which is set in an old bar in Pittsburgh about to be sold to (and destroyed by) gentrifiers, takes place in an old bar in New York, the White Horse Tavern. This is the one on Bridge Street, not the more famous one on Hudson Street. But the one in the financial district is just as full of history and dark wood, which makes it a smart choice for this play by Michael Eichler about a brother and sister who feel forced to sell the “shot and a beer tavern” that their folks ran for 35 years. 

It struck me as one of the few smart or interesting choices in the play, which is running through September 26.

With their parents having died in a car crash, Janey (Kim Katzbergand Danny (standout Sergey Nagorny), born and raised in Pittsburgh, see themselves as unfit to take over their parents’ business, which had been struggling financially for years. So they reluctantly entertain offers from prospective buyers. Two competing couples respond —  native New Yorkers Ethan and Sophia (Emily Elizabeth Bennett and Asha Devi), and native Californians Dylan (Samuel Barnes Jaffe) and Kylie (Kaila Wooten.)  Both couples are caricatured in a way that is only intermittently funny, and never fresh. (Dylan is amazed that he can walk anywhere, and that the city is so cold.) The Californians want to turn the bar into an “alternative” cab company and an holistic health studio (which is where the title comes from: Kylie wants to teach tai chi; “Repulsing the Monkey” is a move in which the practitioner “pushes something away. “) It wasn’t completely clear to me what the New Yorkers wanted to turn the bar into; apparently offices of a new environmental advocacy organization to promote bicycling.

I have no doubt the playwright was trying to be satirical,  but the only one of the plans that had any ring of (even satirical) truth was when Kylie said:  “we would keep the bar to serve smoothies.” 

Let me digress here to recall a long-ago comment I read by a snooty critic who chose to express his disagreement with the positive review written by a younger colleague by dismissing him as someone “who was probably just grateful to get a free seat in the orchestra.”

I was just grateful to “Repulsing the Monkey” for two reasons – that it centers on the issue of gentrification, and that it is one of the few site-specific works of theater that I’ve been able to see in the past eighteen months. (There have been others, mostly outdoors.)

As it happens, the same day I saw “Repulsing the Monkey,” by coincidence I attended a New York City Council hearing in the morning about the threats to small businesses, especially storefronts, in New York City, and the possibility of legislating commercial rent regulation. “Small businesses have taken a one-two punch of nearly Biblical proportions,” testified Jonnel Doris, the Commissioner for the NYC Department of Small Business Services (probably meaning the punches to be the pandemic and Hurricane Ida.) “Gentrification has a lot of negative impact,” Brooklyn Councilmember Stephen T. Levin said. If there are villains threatening beloved neighborhood businesses, they are generally not clueless young people with money, but corporate and real estate interests.

“Repulsing the Monkey” would have worked better for me had the playwright helped us see more palpably the real-life pressures challenging such family-owned businesses, and given us a better sense of what the bar, and by extension the neighborhood, had been like – why it would have been worth preserving. Yes, we hear the jukebox playing the music of Bob Corbin (apparently a favorite of Pittsburghers), but the tavern has been shuttered, so we never see it in action (an odd choice.) And it’s only near the end of the play that Dylan and Janey tell us about anything that they’ll miss: “Here’s to all the stuffed cabbage dinners…to all the Zambelli fireworks show….” (The ending itself is beyond just implausible; it’s illogical.)

Danny also says something that resonates as the heart of the debate over gentrification, and that could have been worth dramatizing in some way: “I don’t want the neighborhood to be what it is becoming and I don’t want it to go back to what it used to be.”

By play’s end, what’s most memorable has been the tangible proof that some places are worth preserving.  The creative team adds a few touches — the third floor of White Horse Tavern where the play takes places is spruced up with portraits of Pittsburgh sports stars  and photographs of that city’s landscapes. But it’s the permanent surroundings of the bar that does much of the persuading. The first tavern on the site is said to date back to 1641, and this one (in a 19th century building) was reportedly launched right after the end of Prohibition in 1933, then miraculously survived the transformation of the financial district from seaport support to sea of skyscrapers. Since 1976, it’s been “family owned and operated” by people who call themselves “The Gleeson Family.” Not that this means it’s completely escaped gentrification. In a touch that’s worthy of satire, their website proclaims: “Serving the FiDi community for 80 years.”

Repulsing the Monkey
Written by Michael Eichler
Directed by Daniel Leeman Smith
Lighting Designer/Stage Manager: Kathrine R. Mitchell
White Horse Tavern in the Financial District
through September 26
Running time: 80 minutes
Tickets: $40
(“$75 for VIP table seating and service with 2 included drinks and the option to purchase food.”)
Cast: Kim Katzberg, Sergey Nagorny, Emily Elizabeth Bennett, Kaila Wooten, Samuel Barnes Jaffe, and Asha Devi

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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