“Ding Dong, It’s the Ocean,” is now playing from May 17, 2018 to June 3, 2018, at 8pm at JACK Theater in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, off of Clinton Hill’s A-C subway stop (as opposed to its G train stop). Jeremy Bloom directed the piece, and in a bit of postmodern theater, writer Alex Borinsky named the play’s main character Jeremy, as played by Jacob Perkins. Joseph White wrote and curated the music, and Bloom’s production partner Brian Rady painted the banners, which are used as set design toward the beginning and end of the play. “Ding Dong, It’s the Ocean,” is co-presented by HERE Theater in Manhattan. “Ding Dong, It’s the Ocean” is going on right now and is very much recommended.
The blurb for the play on JACK’s website says: “An arts collective gathers to celebrate their director’s birthday; fueled by Moscow Mules, the partygoers sprawl across the apartment, decompressing from their ongoing rehearsal process. They speculate about the end of the world. They dance. They nap. As the night unfolds, the play that they are building – about our planet’s ailing oceans – pervades every conversation, until the party guests find they are performing it. Ding Dong, It’s the Ocean is a play about what people manage to find in each other when the world feels past saving.”
The plot of this play is similar to “Avengers: Infinity War” in theaters now, because it’s a superhero’s gallery of charming writer-actor hipsters. Each of the actors and actresses have a great deal of writing and acting under their belt, and just coincidentally all of these people are fun, twee, and good-looking. The play unfolds at Jeremy’s birthday party. Borinsky uses the “Avengers” writing prompt here, which is the ability to create excitement and drama simply by adding characters. A second axiom of playwrights is to put characters in a scene where they want something. Wes Anderson movies fit in on both play-writing prompts, in movies such as “The Royal Tenenbaums,” or “The Life Aquatic,” because Anderson revels in myriad characters, all of whom are finicky and fastidious to make demands on each other. Just like Anderson, Borinsky’s play has a delightful sense of surprise. This is great because the drama seems both erratic and totally logical. Borinsky’s ambition for this play is to reconcile intimate scale, such as the dinner party, and the macro-scale of the problems of climate change and ocean pollution. In the case of the former, not every character talks about climate change. One character, Jenny, had a great day and earned a new job. A reciprocal character sees her life ruined when her partner cheats on her. Borinsky is spot on here, because living in New York City (or anywhere) is tough enough without thinking about climate change.
The notion of a dinner party as fertile ground to pontificate, and as a way to talk about issues is often found in popular culture. In Lena Dunham’s T.V. dramedy Girls she used dinners to get all of her different characters together, and in Louis C.K.’s Louie the comedian uses intimate diner scenes and larger poker roundtable discussions to talk about different perspectives. Likewise, the sitcom “That 70’s Show,” saw that show’s main characters get high and spout goofy one-liners. In a word, friendship is part of what gives Borinsky the magical dramatic ability to tie together surprise and logical narrative.
Friendship is related to how Borinsky uses gay culture as a critical perspective on the night’s proceedings. Borinsky lays claim to a particular part of expansive civil rights activism by gay culture, probably best exemplified by James Baldwin. Baldwin was gay, and this was part and parcel with his fastidious and articulate public intellectualism – but his gayness didn’t take up the oxygen, wasn’t the point. In a historical perspective Baldwin’s identity as being both gay and African-American is somewhere between nontrivial and foundational. In a parallel, the political philosopher Cornel West has makes connections between race, civil rights, and economic class struggles.
In Borinsky’s storytelling, the characters’ gayness is a way to keep a sense of optimism in the wake of bad news, and yes, it's very bad news. Philosopher Daniel Dennett’s TED Talk on the evolutionary rationale for a sense of humor says humor is the joy of problem solving. Here, gayness serves as part of that problem-solving ability. In Borinsky’s penultimate climax, the darkest soliloquy comes from a straight character’s vicious screed against poetry in stark, violent, and defeatist terms. The scene is a meeting place between fatalist attitudes in the playwright, the character, and the audience, and in terms of narrative the scene works. The sadness of this straight character, and noted she isn’t the play’s only straight character, combined with the levity in the rest of the play means Borinsky gives a certain amount of authority to this pessimism about poetry. Poetry won’t solve the problems of ocean pollution or climate change. This monologue is true, it makes sense in the play, and it’s well said. It still hurts. The problem is Borinsky and company know that sadness and shutting down become a self-fulfilling shutdown, and it’s not a good way to solve problems because shutting down isn’t solving problems at all, it’s escaping them.
Borinsky’s emphasis on the ocean crisis matches the Museum of Art and Design (MAD) installation and exhibition in 2016 and 2017, “Crochet Coral Reef: Toxic Seas” by Margaret and Christine Wertheim and the Institute for Figuring. In that exhibit, two sisters made intricate crafts using garbage and plastic bags in order to make sculptures that look like coral reefs. Borinsky’s use of gay culture in order to represent conscious deliberation also looks like photographer Diane Arbus’s emphasis on drag queens, with the meditation that drag queens live deliberately. Borinsky says as much in a drag queen’s wonderful song near the third part of this one-act play.
Borinsky, Bloom, and company have created something special in this play, then. By serving the audience and its moral compass, and by using common tropes and theatrical devices, their characters work to transcend from ordinary life. If the reward for feelings is great joy, this play gives an enjoyment tenfold. This play -- gently and for the most part in a fun way -- asks its audience to be just a little bit more conscientious, where most fiction would be that much more cruel, just like Borinsky’s complaint against unbridled and unrealistic poetry. So, it’s a good play about bad news that wants its audience to be and stay empowered. Right on.