“400 Years in Manhattan” Both Delights and Educates

Lead Article, Reviews

By Mikey Miller
 
Entering the fourth‑floor black box at Theatre Row, it’s difficult to believe that you could spend the next hour and 40 minutes enjoying a comprehensive tour of the island of Manhattan. Yet that’s exactly what playwright, designer, performer, and tour guide Noah Diamond offers his audience.
 
Mr. Diamond enters wearing a seemingly permanent smile (one of the distinguishing marks of a seasoned tour guide, I’d like to think) and begins his lesson, transporting us back in time 410 years. He discusses Henry Hudson’s 1609 voyage to America, when the name “Manhattan”‑or rather “Mannahatta,” the Lenni Lenape name that means “land of many hills,” or simply “high,” in both senses of the word, as Mr. Diamond points out‑first appeared in writing. As many explorers did, Hudson believed he was in India, and he subsequently sailed upstream the river that would later bear his name. When he arrived to what would eventually become Albany, Mr. Diamond joked, Hudson must’ve believed that he had stumbled upon China.
 
The performance doesn’t continue as a history lecture, though. Mr. Diamond, who calls himself as much a struggling artist now as he was in the mid‑1990s when he moved to New York, tells us that he decided to work as a tour guide for Big Apple Bus Tours as one of a smattering of survival jobs. The double‑decker bus tour company was shut down in 2000 for insuring only half of its fleet of vehicles, and simply copying the paperwork for the other half. Although he didn’t always find the work glamorous, he resolved to make it intimately and creatively satisfying, even on his hardest days.
 
The duality in Mr. Diamond’s show stems from its unique structure. After lecturing on a century of Manhattan’s history (and don’t worry, this isn’t your college professor’s history course‑the brief yet detailed lesson is rife with puns, jokes, and a couple of made‑up stories, seemingly designed to keep the audience on its toes), Mr. Diamond puts on his red tour‑guide windbreaker. He hops over to stage right‑stage left is reserved for our history lesson‑and makes us the out‑of‑town tourists who desperately want to know why Manhattan looks the way it does now, and how it came to be. Joined by the fantastic Fernando, the invisible bus driver whom Mr. Diamond calls the accompanist to his singer, we are taken on a journey through midtown and downtown. Speaking about 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, Mr. Diamond can’t help but jest about how much fun some lucky audience members presently enjoying a show at Theatre Row must be having.
 
There is no better person to have written and performed this show than Mr. Diamond. Eight million people call New York City home‑and double that number work there‑though I doubt many of them have done as much extensive research about “the land of many hills” as Mr. Diamond has, especially considering his livelihood depended on it. New York’s history is inextricably linked to his life and career; he was laid off from his final full‑time tour guide position on September 11, 2001.
 
You don’t have to be a history buff or a tourist to enjoy the evening. Mr. Diamond’s perfectly corny sense of humor brings new life to an island and a history already so full of life.
 
Manhattan, Mr. Diamond concludes, is a place both stuck in its past and propelling towards its future. Destroyed buildings are replaced by ones that subsequently carry as much historical and cultural weight (who gets to say which are more important?) and obsolete features of the island’s past are commemorated by street names (Canal and Wall Streets are reminders of a literal canal and wall that used to exist there).
 
Just as people are, Manhattan is impermanent. Manhattan, the “global capital,” is simultaneously its past and its future. That, Mr. Diamond gleefully and nostalgically imparts, is the most pressing duality of all.

 
400 Years in Manhattan
Written, Designed, and Performed by Noah Diamond
Produced and Directed by Amanda Sisk
September 30 at 7 PM, October 4 at 9 PM, and November 6 at 9 PM
2019 United Solo Festival
Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
 
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MIKEY MILLER is an actor, writer, and tutor based in Jersey City, NJ. He received his BA in English with a minor in theatre arts from the University of Pennsylvania in 2018. Since then, Mikey has acted in off-Broadway and regional productions and worked as a freelance writer for publications such as StageAgent and ShowTickets.
 

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