New York Times: Review: Too Many Cupcake Shops, Says Penny Arcade

Publication date: 
May 18, 2017
Author: 
Charles Isherwood
Even before you enter the auditorium at St. Ann’s Warehouse to see Penny Arcade’s solo show “Longing Lasts Longer,” the voice of the performer can be heard echoing through the lobby as she wanders the aisles engaging with the audience. I overheard a funny aria about her trials with the health care system even before I took my seat.
 
Ms. Arcade, whose delivery suggests what might have happened if Phyllis Diller had fallen in with the Andy Warhol crowd (as indeed Ms. Arcade did), trains her stiletto wit on the gentrification of New York in this entertaining if rambling show. The city, she laments, was once a place of renewal, where creative people came to invent themselves anew, shedding the skins of conformity.
 
“We were inspired and intoxicated by the palpable sense of freedom in the streets,” she recalls, having herself fled a Connecticut factory town. “Now,” she continues, “people come to New York and they want New York to be like where they’re from, the suburbs.” What’s worse, they no longer see the city as a beacon of possibility, except narrowly. “They don’t feel the need to reinvent themselves. They just think that they need to become successful and make a lot of money.”
 
Sing it, Penny.
 
True, this particular tune has been played before. Ms. Arcade, who created the show with her longtime collaborator, Steve Zehentner, is hardly the first to note that many of the gritty streets of the city have become sleek alleyways lined by expensive boutiques, chain stores and more Citibank branches than an entire continent should need. But her funny, hectoring tone and her perky mien — she breaks into occasional bouts of funky dance now and then — bring a lively new perspective to an oft-heard plaint.
 
And Ms. Arcade soon departs from her central theme to head into broader territory, tracing the spread of mass culture and its toxins back to the 1920s, to Edward Bernays, sometimes called the “father of public relations.” She quotes him saying, “If we understand the motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control the masses according to our will without their knowing it?” She goes on to cite evidence that, well, yes, too many of us have become a great mass succumbing to shiny objects. (She, on the other hand, boasts that she has never owned a Barbie doll, been to Disneyland or seen “Jaws.”)
 
Naturally, she’s not too pleased about the recent election. “The only relief is that it gave us a break from the Kardashians and Taylor Swift,” she cracks, although a direct line could be drawn from the vacuous celebrity culture exemplified by the rise of that family to our president-elect.
 
But I digress, as does Ms. Arcade, moving from a brief history of the advertising industry to carping about tourist hordes invading the city. She is often blistering — much of the show is essentially a free-form rant — but her anger is always tempered by natural warmth.
 
Don’t get her started on the proliferation of cupcake shops, the cultural obsession with youth or, especially, how coddled college students are walled off from anything that might possibly alarm them.
 
A few too many of the complaints feel recycled, and none are likely to ruffle the feathers of anyone in her audience. The loss of the idealism born in the 1960s is a familiar story, although Ms. Arcade specifically stresses that she has no nostalgia for any decade. Her motto could be: “Been everywhere, done everything, time to move on.”
 
Still, it was only when Ms. Arcade shifted into uplift mode that my interest began to flag. “Happiness is a decision you make. Happiness is not magic,” she says toward the show’s close. “I don’t need anyone to make me happy, and neither do you! I am already happy. I need other people to share my happiness with!”
 
Thanks for sharing, Ms. Arcade. But the truth is this singular performer is really better at strafing our unsatisfactory world with rage than at pushing self-empowerment. I loved her most when she was freely hating, then stopping to add, “Nobody here has to worry, because, you see, I already hate so many people, I can’t hate anyone new until 2022.”
 
I wouldn’t bet on that particular prophecy coming true, and frankly I wouldn’t want it to.

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