Bay Street Theater: “The New Sincerity” Takes on Social Movements and Self Promotion

Director Bob Balaban (center) working on "The New Sincerity" at Bay Street Theater with actors Peter Mark Kendall (left) and Justine Lupe (right)
Director Bob Balaban (center) working on “The New Sincerity” at Bay Street Theater with actors Peter Mark Kendall (left) and Justine Lupe (right)

By Annette Hinkle

When a political, cultural or social movement emerges and is poised to change the conversation and direction of the country, who gets to claim that movement as their own? More importantly, on a personal level, when someone gets swept up in that movement how can one discern whether this person is truly working toward advancing the goals of the movement or simply out for a bit of self promotion?

These are the types of issues that bogged down many well-meaning protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and given the current generation’s dependence on social media to define public persona, they are even more relevant today. These issues also go to the heart of Alena Smith’s play “The New Sincerity” which has its world premiere at the Bay Street Theater next week, with Bob Balaban directing.

“The New Sincerity” offers a complicated multi-layered look at social change and interpersonal relationships in today’s world. While the protests of the ‘60s and ‘70s set the stage for sit-ins and the chaotic cross-purposes at which many people work in any large social movement, a little over three years ago, Occupy Wall Street revealed how the 21st century reincarnation of these movements are complicated by the conundrum of social media.

The ability to Tweet, Instragram and blog about one’s experiences “on the ground” has made the social movement instantaneously world-wide in a way it never was before, which is why motive is always a question. Then there’s the notion of power. Who gets to co-op a movement, and how does anything get done when everyone is equal?

There’s a lot of terrain to explore here and Ms. Smith notes that “The New Sincerity” was inspired by a personal experience she had in 2011 during the Occupy Wall Street movement in Manhattan.

“I had some friends associated with this literary magazine who got involved in the movement and they started printing their own newsletters and passing them out in the park,” she explains. “One night I was there passing out the newsletter with them and I overheard someone in the park, a more hard-core anarchist type, say, ‘Who do they think they are? Why are they making these newsletters?’”

“He was slightly mocking and I thought it was funny that this micro-conflict was going on amongst these bigger issues which Occupy was about,” adds Ms. Smith.

That experience became the basis for “The New Sincerity,” in which Rose Spencer (played by Justine Lupe), an idealistic young journalist and essayist, gets involved in an Occupy-style movement via a highbrow literary magazine. She soon finds herself in the midst of a love triangle where she must discern meaning from motive and ultimately, she ends up questioning the effectiveness of organizational structures in general, all of which, she sees, have their inherent flaws.

“I tried to write this comedy of manners,” explains Ms. Smith. “Rose has just gotten in with this snooty magazine. When she finds out about the movement, she wants the magazine to get involved, so she convinces the editor [Benjamin played by Teddy Bergman], who she has a subterranean flirtation with, to go get involved.”

“She ends up becoming totally and completely committed to the movement,” she adds. “But the editor usurps it for his own end.”

That’s where the notion of sincerity comes into play. As a journalist, Rose may think she’s full of idealistic optimism, but soon she is forced to ask herself if those around her mean what they say or are simply out for themselves. When it comes to motive, is it possible that Rose is also being less than honest? Is she, in fact, an operator?

“She’s asking herself this because she’s perpetually emotionally tangled with this guy who’s emotionally unavailable,” says Ms. Smith. “In the play, there’s also an anarchist character [Django played by Peter Mark Kendall] who Rose gets involved with. He talks about how you can love whoever you want. He’s about possibility and breaking down walls and how power gets twisted.”

Rose also finds herself debating the different ways in which people organize others. One of those ways is hierarchal, like the literary magazine where she works, the other is horizontal where there is consensus and everyone has an equal voice.

“She can’t commit to either of these because both have their problems,” explains Ms. Smith.

Complicating the situation is the issue of social media, embodied in the play by Natasha (played by Elvy Yost) a 22-year-old intern at the magazine who represents the Internet generation’s take on the whole thing.

“Questions about sincerity come up for people who spend their lives in the project of self exposure,” explains Ms. Smith. “Instagramming, blogging or tweeting can be seen as the most false thing or the most sincere because you’re not hiding anything. In a weird way, she’s the character who ends up telling the truth.”

While the movement in “The New Sincerity” is intentionally vague and only loosely based on Occupy Wall Street, the conversations it raises are very similar. Over the winter, the play was workshopped at the Cape Code Theatre Project and Ms. Smith was encouraged by the feedback and gratified to realize that not all the questions the play raises are readily answered.

“The audience was smart and had helpful things to say about the play,” says Ms. Smith. “Probably the most profound thing I heard was some people said this play makes me feel so hopeless about the politics of this country while others said it gave them hope.”

“It’s all about the question of whether anyone is being sincere,” she adds. “The play asks that question and does not say whether or not a movement like Occupy was effective. If it was effective at changing the conversation, great, but what does conversation matter? And plays are conversation, so in a way what does my play matter?”

“It’s not really my responsibility to give you hope,” notes Ms. Smith. “The play is in many ways a trifle, but one that has something serious at the heart of it.”

The world premiere of “The New Sincerity” opens at Bay Street Theater (Long Wharf, Sag Harbor) on Tuesday, May 26, 2015 at 7 p.m. The first show on May 26 is a “Pay What You Can” performance tickets will be available at the Bay Street box office beginning at 2 p.m. that day. The play runs through June 14 and tickets are $60.75 to $75. On Sundays, high school and college students can receive free admission for the 2 p.m. matinee. Photo ID required. Talkback Tuesday with Bay Street’s artistic director Scott Schwartz, and members of “The New Sincerity” cast following each Tuesday performance except for preview week. Call the box office at (631) 725-1700 for more information.