‘Let the Men Be as Bland as Possible’: An Interview With “[Porto]” Playwright Kate Benson

The world is not suffering from a shortage of thinkpieces and essays about urban millennial women. Analyses of relationships dependent on technology, reports of professional advancement (or lack thereof) while competing with men in the workplace — all of these and more proliferate in the blogosphere and in newspapers. But rarely has the theater produced so intimate and in-depth a portrait of urban millennial unmarried woman as that seen in [Porto], Kate Benson’s winsome and winning play, currently at Women’s Project Theater. Set in a hip Brooklyn neighborhood, in which the title character’s local (and “serious”) bar offers up menu items like venison jerky popcorn and foie gras sausage, Benson’s play provides piercing insight into the mind of a woman (played by Julia Sirna-Frest) pondering her battling instincts of what she wants to do and what she should do. [Porto] returns to the stage after a 2017 run at the Bushwick Starr. Directed by Lee Sunday Evans, it’s running uptown just a few months after the finale of Girls, another notable portrayal of millennial urban women. But Benson’s script differs greatly from Lena Dunham’s HBO series — hardly a surprise, given the playwright has never watched the show.

[Porto], which bills itself as “an upside-down romantic comedy,” invites the audience directly into Porto’s mind, courtesy of narration spoken throughout by the playwright herself. We can hear the different thoughts and goals, as well as the scoldings and self-admonishments, that fight for Porto’s attention. She should exercise more and eat better, but she should also take advantage of the fact that she lives in a city with so many great restaurants. She should put herself out there and try online dating again but, as a feminist, she should be happy sitting at the bar alone. She should be vulnerable, but also self-protective; open to possibilities, but cautious and smart. It’s a lot to pack into one play — or for one woman to live with every day, especially when presented in contrast to the freedom unquestionably exercised by so many men.

Benson sat down with the Voice to talk about bringing Porto to life and how detailing the making of sausage can be tied into a love story.

What inspired this play?

Kate Benson: I was thinking about romantic comedies and how, for a certain period of time, it seemed like the men were these wildly eccentric characters, and the women were incredibly bland. I was in my last semester of grad school [at Brooklyn College], and trying to think about a form or a topic I hadn’t explored, and thought, “Let’s write a love story I would want to be in.” I wanted to put an anti-Hollywood heroine at the center and let the men be as bland as possible. That was the project when I started writing, and then other things transpired. I don’t think the men are super-bland, but we don’t get to investigate them in the same way we get to understand who Porto is.

[Porto] differs greatly from the standard New York–set romantic comedy. How did you decide what part of the city to portray, and how to portray it? 

I found some other shows about New York really frustrating in their lack of reality. They seemed to fall into a couple of camps. One, it’s [the place] where white people go to have everything they want, when they want it. Another is the city is this brutal place where everybody is lonely, which I think is a product of the Eighties. I wanted to write about the New York that I loved and lived in and know about. A couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me that the narration primarily blooms when people are outside on the street, and I was thinking about how one of the things I love about New York is you can go for a very, very long walk and see lots of different things and just think your way through something.

Part of Porto’s arc is how she copes with loneliness and whether she can break out of her habits and connect with someone. What went into capturing urban isolation onstage?

I think because I work in the theater, I don’t have a shortage of social opportunities at all. I decided I was going to move away from that terrain and think about somebody who maybe had co-workers but wasn’t necessarily hanging out with them or didn’t have a social job. What would that be like? What if everything were a bit more stable and routine than it is in my life? There are people who can go to trivia night every Monday without disruption and go to the Bell House and hear the lecture. I was thinking about that kind of lifestyle, if it exists, and I thought, “There is a way of living in this country that is get in your car, leave your house, go to work, come home, stay home.”

I think New York is a wonderful place. You can encounter sixteen people on the way to work, including the guy who’s going to tell you a joke. While I understand that loneliness is a thing that can afflict people in the city, it’s not something I have precisely experienced. But then there is this problem of, “Where is the person I want to talk to all the time and also have sex with? Does that person exist? How do we choose and find those people?” This was in a moment when a lot of people I knew were internet-dating. I started daydreaming about what if we didn’t try to meet on the internet first? What if we were allowed to have serendipitous and spontaneous encounters with strangers? And thinking about how to meet someone, and whether there is a how, brought up this idea of loneliness and how we’re all in our traps. How do we break out of our traps?

Left to right: Julia Sirna-Frest, Leah Karpel, and Jorge Cordova knock back a few in a hip Brooklyn bar.
Left to right: Julia Sirna-Frest, Leah Karpel, and Jorge Cordova knock back a few in a hip Brooklyn bar.

When thinking about human connection in [Porto], it’s notable that none of the characters have cell phones.

That was a super fantasy about an earlier world. There were no TVs in the bar. No cell phones. Before cell phones, the fear and opportunity and pleasure of going out in public was that you might talk to a stranger. Sometimes that was good and sometimes it was terrible, but it was a possibility. So walking through the door was a different choice than it is now, when you can isolate.

It was great to see this play onstage now, given the conversations happening about women’s employment and equality in the entertainment industry.

If there’s a political act in the play — and I think there is, and I hope it’s being perceived that way — it’s this: the idea that the human we follow is a woman and the human we hear from is a woman, and the resolution happens through women and through men trying to understand women and understand things from their points of view. And the fact that the man is asked to reflect on his desire also feels very important.

The question of whether or not Porto should make coffee for a man after spending the night with him becomes quite the academic discussion between two well-known feminists. How did you come to write that scene?

I was thinking about trying to make some of her problems explicit to myself. I felt like I was struggling with this intention between having adventures of all kinds — going to parties, having those nights where you just say yes to the next thing and the night unfolds like this crazy Russian doll flower — [and also] how to balance that kind of spontaneity and joy against being in a caring and supportive relationship and what that looks like.

I was watching some people turn their romantic relationships into almost parent-child relationships. “Oh, but he needs this so I have to go home … I’m really proud of myself because I make him dinner,” and this way of handing over autonomy and trying to wrestle with this idea of, “Where is independence inside of a relationship? What happens next and how do you establish the terms of a healthy relationship when you don’t know the other person that well but you’d like to?” How do you say, “I really like you and I want to get to know you better,” without saying, “Here are the keys to my life?”

There are some graphic descriptions in the script, including a detailed monologue about how sausage is made. These bits seem to contrast with the possibility of romance in Porto’s life. Do you consider [Porto] to be an optimistic story?

I wasn’t thinking about it as a particularly dark play, and that’s how it’s struck some people. If we’re thinking about light and dark, my dark is a lot darker than this dark. Something I think is beautiful about theater is that it affords the possibility for things to resonate with people very differently. I think people who are already embarked on a project of being in the world and figuring out some sort of feminism and some sort of interpersonal relationship … it’s like, “Yes.” But I think for people who haven’t been engaged in dating and trying to meet people or trying to figure out how to start over, it feels very dark. There’s so much “Pull back the curtain and talk about how this actually happened.” I think I meant to put forward at least my desire to relentlessly investigate everything.

WP Theater 
2162 Broadway
Through March 4