In a historic building just south of Union Square, modernist artist Marcel Duchamp (David Leeper) and Wild West showman Buffalo Bill (Christopher Lowe) play a game of invisible chess, while the French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt (Steph Van Vlack) laments over the fact she was played by an Englishwoman — the horror! — in her biopic.
Written and directed by Barbara Kahn, “Where Do All the Ghosts Go?” places five ghosts, all of whom have faced some kind of adversity in life, in one room of the St. Denis building.
Kahn was inspired by the news of the edifice’s impending demolition. Residing on the corner of 11th Street and Broadway, the building was built in 1953 and is, as Kahn puts it, “a recent victim of the gentrification that erases our historic legacy.”
“I felt angry and helpless at the impending demolition,” Kahn said in the press materials, “but decided to rescue some of the history by writing a play about it.”
“Where are the living?” laments Sarah in the opening scene of the play, surveying the dilapidated room, unaware that the building is soon to be leveled. When a young married couple — Jos and Frances Frankie (Fleur Voorn and Ashley Versher) — come storming in, searching for a scarf Jos believes she left behind after their last therapy appointment, the ghosts must convince the two living women that they are real, and find out what is going to happen to them after the building is torn down.
Jos and Frankie’s marriage, meanwhile, is on the rocks. Frankie is fed up with Jos’ passive-aggressive behavior, and Jos, a fantasy writer who can’t seem to work through the third chapter of her novel, is convinced Frankie doesn’t even read any of her best-selling books.
The first act of the show, while a bit slow, is endearing and often rather funny, as the ghosts must convince Jos — who writes about ghosts in her novels but doesn’t really believe in them — that they are real. The ghosts also continually refer to Frankie as her friend rather than her wife, a point of contention which is never fleshed out further.
While Frankie is not fully convinced of the ghosts’ existence until the end of the show, she still agrees to pull out her iPad and Google each character, scavenging the internet to piece together a history of each individual’s life that will give them some clue as to where they may be best suited to dwell once the St. Denis is demolished.
The second act grows a bit tiresome, however, as we see each ghost make amendments to the internet’s account of their lives. Then, one by one, they walk offstage as the lights black out and we hear a voiceover of their final adieu to the St. Denis. By the end of the show, everything is resolved rather predictably, as each character has found a new home where they are happy. Jos and Frankie seem to have put their differences aside, though nothing actually takes place in the story to indicate that they have worked through any of the problems they were dealing with in the first act.
Still, the actors all give stunning performances which distract from some of the predictability of the plot, with Van Vleck offering an especially convincing portrayal as Bernhardt.
“Where Do All the Ghosts Go?” artfully places figures of the past in conversation with the present, and tackles the ubiquitous threat of gentrification.
“Where Do All The Ghosts Go?” is running at Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., through April 28.
Email Julie Goldberg at [email protected]