The Tank, one of the most prolific artistic companies in New York City, is enjoying some tea at Ben Gassman’s new play, Sam’s Tea Shack, which plays at the company’s new home on West 36th Street in Manhattan. The unconventional piece treats the F train as the Silk Road and relays an Ashkenazi Jewish boy’s fantasy that he’s communicating with his ancestors, central Asian nomads.
There’s a lot of back-and-forth with the audience and plenty of tea to go around. The comedy about identity, which runs through Oct. 1, stars Sam Soghor and is directed by Meghann Finn.
Recently, Hollywood Soapbox exchanged emails with Gassman about the play. Questions and answers have been slightly edited for style.
Where did the idea for Sam‘s Tea Shack come from? How interactive is the piece?
The idea for Sam‘s Tea Shack came primarily from my delight in listening to Sam talk. His foot constantly ends up in his mouth, but he associates, digresses, compliments, obsesses and somehow gets it out. Almost always. Once in a while not. But usually. He has one of the liveliest minds I’ve ever encountered, and a curiosity about the furthest reaches of the world at the most planetary level and about his city at the most particular level.
The second part was this obsession of mine with the Silk Road, with Marco Polo, with the way that almost every culture in the world has some type of food in which a filling of meat or vegetables is stuffed into a wrapper of starch. Dumplings, samosas, knishes, empanadas. And obviously it’s a good idea to wrap some minced and seasoned meat or potato or spinach in dough or a noodle, but the way the packaging and the fillings change slightly and slowly across geographical space is actually telling a myriad of stories about cultural interaction and permeability, about a way of identifying and interacting that precedes the nation state.
And then I found out about the Bukharian Jewish restaurants of Rego Park, Queens. I learned that most of the Jewish community in Uzbekistan emigrated to Queens when the Soviet Union collapsed. And the manty — Bukharian dumplings — and samci — little meat and pumpkin stuffed pastries — I ate in their restaurants, made Genghis Khan and Marco Polo feel like my neighbors. …
The piece is as interactive as Sam, the special guests and the audience make it on any given night. So far, Phyllis, Sam‘s mom, has taken the interaction the furthest. It all becomes dream state when she’s in the audience. …
What’s it been like working with director Meghan Finn?
Meghan’s brilliant. Cool under pressure. Sam and I are neurotics. It’s really good.
We’ve all been working together in different ways, helping each other out and making things together since 2010. When we worked on The Downtown Loop in 2013, there were many many many people involved — performers, designers, production people. But the most natural part of the process were the moments when the world felt pared down to Sam, Meghan and I bouncing ideas off each other, frustrating each other, testing each other, making each other laugh. …
Did you have to conduct a lot of research before writing the piece?
Not intentionally. We’re just curious people who wander around, and ask a lot of questions and insert ourselves into spaces where we are strangers and strange presences. If that’s research, then yes.
What will the special guests add to the performance?
I think we’ll find out each night. Sam loves to learn about people. He loves to charm. He’s not great at sharing the spotlight. Sometimes they’ll make him angry and competitive, which is fun.
Has the play changed a lot over the development stages and between productions?
Yes, the play started out as Sam being a version of Sam with other actors playing scripted characters. Now we’re all unscripted characters in Sam‘s Tea Shack, with the choice to be silent or give ourselves line[s]. In the middle, there were versions that were fully improvisational, no scripted material whatsoever.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
Sam’s Tea Shack is currently performing at The Tank, 312 W. 36th St. in New York City. Performances run through Oct. 1. Click here for more information and tickets.