Girls Breaks The Fourth Wall

Also broken: Hannah's heart. Mark Blankenship answers Jeff Alexander's 38 questions about 38 Neighbors, the theatre piece featured in 'Hello Kitty'!

Our Players

Hello, I'm Previously.TV Contributor Jeff Alexander.
Hello, I'm Previously.TV Contributor and theatre magazine editor Mark Blankenship.

The Talk

Mark, I'm glad you're here. I had a somewhat complicated reaction to 38 Neighbors, the experimental play that served as the backdrop for this episode of Girls. I wanted to get an expert opinion on this fictional piece of theater, so naturally I thought of you. You said you haven't watched Girls since Season 1; that's actually perfect because I'd like to start by talking about 38 Neighbors as though it were a real thing, independent of the Girls-iverse.

I'd be delighted! Where would you like to begin?

Have you seen many shows like this in your real life?

Have I ever! First of all, back in 2006 I saw a dark (and surprisingly effective) musical about Kitty Genovese's murder, so if anyone watching this episode of Girls thinks it seems like a ludicrous idea to turn that horrific crime into a piece of theatre, think again!

Meanwhile, there's a real vogue in New York right now for these site-specific, fully immersive shows that drop you into an environment instead of putting you in front of a stage. Just a few weeks ago, I went to this thing in Brooklyn that lets you wander around a fictional resort spa from the 1970s, and it was made by the same company that has turned a warehouse into a version of Wonderland that you explore on your own, as though you were Alice. And of course, the current Big Kahuna of the form is Sleep No More, which lets audiences wander through an old hotel while Macbeth and other things unfold all around them.

All of which is to say that Adam's play is very on trend.

It strikes me as very expensive. The real estate aside, if every room is a set where people can walk around and take things off the shelves and whatnot, and it all has to be period-correct? Security alone seems cost-prohibitive, just to keep people from walking off with stuff.

Well, it certainly isn't cheap. The tickets for The Grand Paradise, the aforementioned show set at the spa, are as expensive seats at a Broadway musical. (Well...not Hamilton, which is as expensive as a new eyeball made of titanium.) But it's certainly manageable. However, it struck me as prohibitively tricky to take over an apartment building like 38 Neighbors does. Wouldn't you have to displace the neighbors? But then again, there are also plays being done in people's apartments all the time, so who knows. I think if you have the right connections and/or the right sales pitch, you can convince a LOT of people to let you put a show on in their space, which is one of the nice things about New York, honestly.

In your experience, do people really not know how to behave at these kinds of productions? How much of that is just Hannah and her friends being their usual boorish selves?

That's all Hannah and Co. From what I've observed, this type of show encourages audiences to be more attentive and focused than usual. For me, there's this sense that because the show is happening all around me -- and in rooms I can't even see -- I have to take extra care to notice details. Who knows what might be in this drawer or behind that weird plant? Who knows when someone is going to walk out of a tiny closet and pull me inside to deliver a monologue just to me? (This has happened to me.) That sense of possibility -- and of everything around you having meaning -- makes it harder just to slack off and chat. Contrast that with typical shows, where people are forever talking or getting phone calls, and the difference is especially stark.

I imagine that it must be fascinating afterward, where you and your friends can compare separate experiences and use that to create a more complete version in your head of what actually happened.

That's half the fun, and that's also why so many of these shows end by shuttling you into an on-site bar. You always want to know if you missed seeing some actor strutting around naked.

What did you think of 38 Neighbors overall?

The idea seems cool in theory, but the execution is lacking. What are we, as the play's supposed audience members, supposed to glean from this experience other than the fact that 38 of Kitty's neighbors were so distracted by their own mess that they didn't look outside? That's what we go into the play understanding, if we know anything about her case at all (or if we remember the Cookie Costello episode of Law & Order, which totally used this case as its inspiration.) But then again, it's not like this play is real or that we see every second of it. Maybe it was actually awesome, and people who weren't trapped in a room with Hannah's blathering ass had a transformative experience!

Yes, it struck me as potentially brilliant in conception but not necessarily in how well it's pulled off. And of course Hannah ruins everything. But I realized after watching it that Girls has always been really good at skewering certain pretentious artist types, and not just Hannah. I was trying to figure out if 38 Neighbors goes along with that tradition.

I feel like it does, because there are some very clever jokes at the expense of this genre. I mean, it can be very powerful and memorable, but there are also a LOT of times when you're just stealing candy from the set or watching actors dance around. Actors are ALWAYS dancing in these things. And then that moment when everyone looks out the window just to see those deformed plaster statues was pretty hilarious to me. Because OF COURSE the piece is going to pull back from the horror of the event and let the modern-day audience off the hook. We don't have to be spectators of anything! We just get to sit in judgment of the past! I don't know if the Girls team intended those statues to be as acidly satirical as they were, but to me they drove home how smart this script was about skewering this thing. It almost made me think I should watch old episodes of the show to see if the POV remains this sharp.

Oh God, don't do that. But I agree that the statue bit is really effective, on both levels. First, it makes sense that the 38 Neighbors production wouldn't want to distract from the supposed actual drama they were trying to portray in the apartments. And at the same time, it didn't distract from what was going on with Hannah. I mean, that's what she sees at the exact moment she feels like she's being stabbed through the heart.

Ooh, good point about Hannah. Arrgh. And now I'm back to being irritated by this show again. Which is exactly how I felt when I actually still watched it -- a constant roller coaster of admiration and loathing, without much genuine enjoyment. But anyway: if you think about Hannah's connection to the statues, then it's like the series itself is equating her sad evening with what happened to Kitty Genovese. Or maybe it isn't? Am I losing my mind?

No, you're absolutely right. I keep coming back to how the play mirrors Hannah's subjective reality. Like, during the play, when Hannah only suspects that Adam and Jessa are together, her suffering is very performative. But when the play ends and she sees Adam and Jessa actually leave together, the pain is authentic. Reality sets in, in both senses.

Right. Except maybe finding out that your old boyfriend is sleeping with your friend isn't quite the same as being stabbed and raped while everybody around you ignores it.

Was it Mel Brooks who said "Tragedy is when I fall down. Comedy is when you die"?

Oh damn. If Mel Brooks turned Kitty Genovese's life into a Broadway musical, they'd be standing-room only for years!

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