With its circular fountain, winding paths, chess tables and iconic arch, Washington Square Park has long served as both gathering place and inspiration for artists.
Barbara Kahn’s “Crossing Paths in Washington Square” is the latest play to be based on the famous park. But unlike Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s “The Heiress,” currently running on Broadway, Kahn’s work ranges beyond the high-class district to the north to embrace the various ethnic neighborhoods — including Jewish, Italian and African-American — that surrounded the park on its other three sides at the turn of the 20th century. The play opens next week at the Theater for the New City in the East Village.
Kahn contributes a play each year to TNC; her most recent dramas included “Unreachable Eden,” about the lesbian Jewish owner of a tearoom in Greenwich Village, and “Birds on Fire,” about the Italian and Jewish victims of the Triangle Factory Fire.
In “Crossing Paths,” directed by Kahn and Robert Gonzales Jr., a number of erotic and platonic relationships spring from chance encounters in the park. A male Jewish vaudeville performer falls for a female African-American social worker. A nude model, rebelling against her activist Jewish parents, begins a lesbian relationship with a newly arrived immigrant from Russia. And an upper–class woman finds new opportunities for friendship in her own life when her secretly gay husband is attracted to a working-class Italian immigrant man.
In addition to doing interviews with urban archeologists, Kahn delved into census records, letters, classified ads, and shipping news in order to reconstruct the residential patterns and lifestyles of those living a century ago. She set the play in 1913, she told The Jewish Week, because she sees that as “the last year of the 19th century. Before the First World War, people’s attitudes were shaped by the Victorian and Edwardian eras; after that, they were exposed to different cultures.” While she noted that today the park is almost entirely surrounded by NYU buildings, in those days the park was a “microcosm of everything in downtown Manhattan.”
Kahn said that she is fascinated by people who have the courage to take a leap into the unknown, whether by crossing an ocean or simply entering another ethnic group’s urban territory.
“Crossing Paths in Washington Square” opens Jan. 17 and runs through Feb. 3 at the Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. (Ninth-10th streets). Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. For tickets, $12, call SmartTix at (212) 868-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com.