Bright young New Yorkers facing the Age of Obama

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There is a long tradition of plays and movies that have captured the lives of bright young people looking for friendship, creative work and romantic excitement as they struggle through their 20s and early 30s.

Paul Mazursky made one of the best forays into this genre with “Next Stop, Greenwich Village” in 1976 and Joan Micklin Silver explored the same turf the following year in “Between the Lines,” a marvelous film too few people have heard of (let alone seen).

I’m in the middle of reading Julie Salamon’s new biography of Wendy Wasserstein which offers a full account of her wonderful early play “Uncommon Women and Others” which tracked a group of Mount Holyoke women through college and on into their first few years in “real life.”

All of these films and plays ran through my mind Saturday when I caught the last of four workshop performances of Dan Fingerman’s smart, funny and moving first play “The Austerity of Hope,” which follows a really interesting group of young people living in Astoria, Queens, in the period around the election and inauguration of Barack Obama in 2008-2009.

Fingerman has crafted a very specific period piece showing us the excitement and then the tempered disillusion of twentysomethings going through the first presidential election that really meant anything to them.

While the nation is contemplating change, the characters in the play look for decent jobs that will support their creative efforts — two of the characters are would-be journalists who can’t find jobs — and who hope to find lasting sexual and romantic partners.

Fingerman’s gay male characters are a refreshingly wide variety of types — traditionalists who want to get married, sexual adventurers who think monogamy is a square heterosexual idea, and married-to-women guys who are realizing they’ve made a terrible mistake. There’s also a closeted former TV child star who doesn’t think he can restart his career with a (public) male partner at his side.

“The Austerity of Hope” is more than a political play. It uses the election to take us into the lives of a circle of friends who love each other but are deeply divided over whether Obama truly represents something new or is just another canny politician using the optimism of young people for his own ends.

At the center of the story is Simon (Max Rhyser) a smart and charismatic gay man who thinks Obama will just be another Bill Clinton when it comes to real improvements in the lives of gay people. Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, Simon reminds his friends, and also put Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell into place.

While his friends become more hopeful, Simon continues his hedonistic ways, having sex with as many attractive young men as he can. Simon’s life changes when he falls in love with a married man he has been fooling around with in his gym. Fingerman doesn’t try to simplify this very messy romance which is one of the reasons why we believe it when Simon starts to change.

Director Dan Dinero did an amazing job of giving a full production feel to a low-budget workshop, but the real strength of the show was in his just-about-perfect casting of an ensemble of terrific actors who clearly identified with Fingerman’s portrait of young people trying to make a big step forward during a very promising and very scary moment in America.

“The Austerity of Hope” closed up shop Saturday at the Barrow Group Theatre on 36th Street, but if we are lucky we will be seeing this writer and director and ensemble turn up somewhere else — it’s too good a play and too promising a production to disappear.

Joe Meyers

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