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Taking Over

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Danny Hoch
Photo by Joan Marcus.

"All I know is, I should be at home, but I'm not." By the time Danny Hoch utters this late in Taking Over, his new solo play at The Public Theater, he's long since made his point about the changing landscape of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But despite traversing an evening full of juicy personalities, Hoch never makes his message more clearly than when he delivers it as the character who says these words: himself.

Over the last two and a half decades, Hoch has watched New York City transform from an individual, dangerous place into a well-scrubbed and expensive port of call for hipsters, entrepreneurs, and permanent vacationers. But everyone who's trying to horn in on the next big thing might not see what Hoch does: It's too late. His girlfriends come here to find themselves, then move away when they do; he can earn exorbitant sums touring his shows outside New York, but barely pulls down a living wage in the city; the almond croissants he enjoys aren't worth the four dollars he now has to pay for them.

Dressed all in black, he quivers as he rages about the state of his disintegrating hometown, making no attempt to hide his simmering distaste. The more he rails, the more aware you are that you're likely a target as well - he may like you in a "colonial, sexy way," but ultimately if you're not a real part of New York, you're a real part of the problem. Regardless, he always leaves you feeling more informed and empowered than assaulted: His story about a violent drug deal he witnessed 20 years ago, on the site of what is now a Whole Foods, doesn't let you forget that something is invariably gained when something else is taken away.

This is the only time this message leaks into Taking Over. Whether portraying the Latino Robert screaming at "American crackers" from every state to vacate his neighborhood, the old black woman Marion who's watched her home turf turn into a permanent movie set, or the ex-con Kiko striving to become a part of one such film to prove to a Hollywood PA he's worthy of working on it, Hoch sympathizes entirely - and unapologetically - with the little guy being driven to extinction by Big Business, Big Real-Estate, and Big Tourism.

But while Hoch paints colorful caricatures of both sides of the debate, he seldom connects those in the anti- corner with the culture they're trying to preserve. Even in his most successful scene, as an acid-tongued Dominican taxi dispatcher who adheres to very different rules of language at work than he does at home, the sense he imparts is more of an isolated snapshot than of a community as a whole. The individual elements of this side of the equation don't add up to much more than base anger; socialist rap artist Launch Missiles Critical may say it most openly, but it's omnipresent throughout each of the play's nine monologues.

Hoch is most succinct and entertaining when he leaps into those who are either pushing for change or benefiting most directly from it: Stuart, a construction magnate leading the rebuilding charge, holding aloft his overinflated self-worth like a baton; a deep-fried French real estate agent pitching the values of one new dwelling while he's also wheeling and dealing elsewhere; and Kaitlin, the privileged Michigan girl who represents everything wrong with the new New York.

Hoch's dislike for these people has forced him to make them more livelier and more interesting - because, one presumes, he has to work harder to get inside them. More of Hoch's portrayals need the tequila-spiked smoothness of Tony Taccone's direction, which with the help of Annie Smart's street-scene sets and Alexander V. Nichols's lights and projections turns the show into a fast-moving video travelogue of a vanishing Brooklyn. Hoch needs to do as much to draw us into that world, even if our only souvenir of our time there will be a polemic.

He assumes the case against gentrification makes itself, but it doesn't - especially when the people you most remember afterwards are the ones who supported it. Hoch never shows quite vividly enough how everyone is either losing their own home or taking away someone else's, except in his brief moments playing himself. That's when he touches on one aspect of the wider result: the ennui coming from never knowing what you have and what you don't. It hasn't kept Hoch from speaking and acting out, but it's still not quite enough to prove that everything that's already gone is necessarily worth missing.

Taking Over
Through December 14
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Public Theater

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