In the fall of 2020, a young playwright named Matthew Gasda decided to entertain some friends by staging a one-act play on a grassy hilltop of Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn. The masked audience soon realized what they were watching was strikingly relatable: “Circles,” performed on a picnic blanket by seven actors, featured a group of pandemic-weary friends who gathered one evening in a city park over wine to catch up on their lives.
After the applause, Mr. Gasda, 33, passed a hat to donations. Then he started plotting his next play.
A few months later, he unveiled ‘Winter Journey’, a drama loosely based on Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’ set in a chilly backyard in Bushwick. Then came “Quartet,” a comedy about two couples who switch partners, whom he donned in a TriBeCa apartment. He staged his next play, ‘Ardor’, about friends getting together for a weekend in the countryside, in a loft in Greenpoint. He was a long way from Broadway, or even Off Broadway, but he was grateful for the attention.
“I performed plays in New York in anonymity for a long time,” he said, “but during the pandemic, I became like the rat that survived nuclear weapons. Suddenly there was no competition.”
In the spring of 2021, he fell into a downtown social scene that was forming on the eastern edge of Chinatown, at the intersection of Canal and Division Streets. What he saw inspired his next work, “Dimes Square.”
“Dimes Square became the anti-covid hotspot, so I went there because things were going on there,” Mr Gasda said.
Named after Dimes, a restaurant on Canal Street, the microscene was filled with skaters, artists, models, writers and telegenic twenty-somethings who seemed to have no jobs at all. A hyper-local print newspaper called The Drunken Canal gave voice to what was going on.
Mr. Gasda, who had grown up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with a dream of making it in New York, threw himself into the moment and took on his role as a turtleneck playwright. And while he worked as a teacher during the day to earn a living, and in the evenings immersed himself in Dimes Square, he began to envision a play.
Set in a loft in Chinatown, “Dimes Square” chronicles the underhanded affair between a group of selfish artists and media industry types. It is full of references to local haunts such as the Clandestino bar and the Metrograph theatre, and its characters include an arrogant writer who drinks Fernet—the spirit of Mr. Gasda par excellence—and a washed-up novelist who snorts cocaine with people half his age.
With a touch of realism, Mr. Gasda Friends in Key Roles: Bijan Stephen, a journalist and podcast host, portrays a frustrated magazine editor; Christian Lorenzen, a literary critic, plays a haggard Gen X writer; and Fernanda Amis, whose father is the author Martin Amis, plays the daughter of a famous writer.
Since the piece opened in February in a Greenpoint loft, “Dimes Square” has become an underground hit, consistently selling out performances. Among the people watching the show are insiders eager to see their scene on stage, as well as those who have followed it remotely via Instagram. Writers Gary Indiana, Joshua Cohen, Sloane Crosley, and Mr. Amis were all there.
The play, which will begin Friday in a Manhattan apartment in SoHo, also earned Mr. Gasda his first major article, a review by Helen Shaw in New York Magazine’s Vulture, who compared him to Chekhov and stated, “Gasda has appointed himself playwright of the Dimes Square scene.”
After the review went online, Mr. Gasda received a text from a friend on his battered flip phone congratulating him on being called “our Chekhov”. But even as Mr. Gasda tries to get his shot at success in literary New York, there’s something about the noise surrounding his play that worries him.
“I’m grateful for the attention, but the people who come to the show seem to think the piece is an accomplice to the scene, and that’s totally twisted by them,” he said. “The play is pessimistic about the scene.”
Just before actors took the stage at a recent performance, onlookers sipped cheap red wine and chatted about the Twitter chatter surrounding the show. As the lights dimmed, Mr. Gasda, dressed in a tweed jacket with elbow patches and his usual scarf, reminded his guests to pay for their drinks at Venmo.
After the performance, when the booth was empty, an audience member, Joseph Hogan, a 29-year-old filmmaker, criticized: “The sympathy of these characters is irrelevant to me,” he said. “What is important to me is whether their insecurities are recognizable. And as someone who has moved to this city from elsewhere and is trying to make it as they are here in New York, I feel like I can identify with them.”
“If they’re not liked,” he continued, “I’m not. And I’m fine with that.”
The cast of the play went to the usual bar, Oak & Iron. There, Mr. Gasda provided a Fernet while Mr. Lorentzen passed on an evaluation of the show.
“A journalist came up to me and told me she thought you were just going to be another Cassavetes rerun,” said Mr. Lorentzen, referring to John Cassavetes, the noted indie filmmaker of the 1970s and 1980s. “But afterwards she said to me, ‘No, he gets it. He does his own thing.’”
“I’ve gotten references from Cassavetes before,” Mr. Gasda said. “But it’s not my job to be interested in what people think. My job is to keep secret and write.”
He took a sip.
“It’s great that we’re getting attention,” he said, “but it’s not like I’m making money from this. I still have my day job.”
“It reminds me of the story I heard about a man who saw ‘Einstein on the Beach,’” he continued, referring to Philip Glass’s 1976 opera. “Then the man had to get his toilet fixed, so he called a plumber. The plumber shows up and the man asks him, “Aren’t you Philip Glass?” Glass tells him, ‘Yeah, but I’m not making any money from the show yet.’”
Gasda’s quest to become a New York playwright began during his teenage years in Bethlehem, where his father was a high school history teacher and his mother a legal assistant. He grew up watching Eagles games on TV with his father and hearing stories of a grandfather’s time as a steelworker. He became bookish, compulsively read “Ulysses” and devoured the works of the poet John Ashbery and the novelist William Gaddis.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Syracuse University, Mr. Gasda on the bus to the Port Authority. He spent his first day aimlessly until he came across Caffe Reggio, a Greenwich Village institution that was once a meeting place for bohemians and Beat Generation poets. And there, even among the New York University students doing their homework, he felt at home. He soon moved into an apartment in Bushwick and began his reinvention.
He wrote on a Smith Corona electric typewriter. He rocked the scarf and turtleneck at literary parties. He hung out in the piles of the Strand and made Caffe Reggio his office, where he wrote parts of more than a dozen plays. To pay the rent, he taught English at a charter school in Red Hook and worked as a debate coach at Spence, the private Upper East Side school. Now a college prep teacher, he lives in a book-filled apartment in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn.
But even after ten years in the city, apart from friends and relatives, few people could get him to… see his work – until his luck changed during the pandemic, when young New Yorkers, Netflix tired, were looking for some live theater.
Now, in addition to the second run of “Dimes Square,” another play by Mr. Gasda on the schedule, ‘Minotaur’, in a small hall in Dumbo. An early and intimate staging of the production featured actress Dasha Nekrasova, who has a recurring role on “Succession” and co-hosts the provocative politics and culture podcast “Red Scare.”
After a recent “Minotaurus” rehearsal in Midtown, Ms. Nekrasova and another cast member, Cassidy Grady, crawled into the street to smoke a cigarette while Mr. Gasda chatted with them. They discussed Sean Thor Conroe’s debut novel of the moment, “Fuccboi,” as well as the new play that was taking shape.
“‘Minotaur’ is a kind of Ibsenian drama,” Ms. Nekrasova said. “I’m excited about Gasda because he represents a burgeoning interest in theatre, post-Covid, in the city.”
Mr. Gasda slipped into a nearby sports bar. He ordered a glass of Fernet, and as he pondered the impending performance of “Dimes Square,” he suggested that the public think differently about his piece.
“In the end, ‘Dimes Square’ is a comedy,” he said. “I try not to send people to the therapist. And I’m not saying I’m better than the people in my game.”
“The other side of the piece is about the pursuit in New York,” he added. “So it’s about something that’s also universal.”