If the members of Generation Z (this reviewer included) were bearable for more than ninety minutes at a time, then Matthew Gasda’s new play Zoomers would be a knockout. But because so-called Zoomers tend to wear out their welcome before too long, the play inevitably falls away. Nevertheless, for slightly over an hour, it is a compelling, hilarious, and depressing examination of the empty stories the generation continues to tell itself.
Gasda’s path to the New York art world started, as it does for so many, with modest origins elsewhere, but a life in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania gave way to the pull of New York in 2011. Hidden away in Greenwich Village cafés and Chinatown holes-in-the-wall, Gasda began turning out scripts and staging small performances at a prolific pace.
Then, in 2022, the stars aligned with Dimes Square. Dimes was not merely a critical success—it was the perfect play for its time and place. Crystallizing the mood and character of its titular downtown social scene during an era that one character calls “the dumbest time in human history,” the play pits a loosely connected group of artists and artist-adjacents seeking connection and success against the backdrop of an increasingly alienating New York. The line between fiction and reality blurred as performances were staged in lofts lived in by the members of the social scene, and as its actors bore close resemblance to the roles they played. Dimes was big enough to earn Gasda his first real recognition: suddenly he was being covered in the newspaper of record.
Gasda begins from the belief that art must reflect its milieu, its time in history, and, to some extent, its audience, with honesty and without moralization. This type of realist approach is, of course, not new—what is new is Gasda’s application of it to a new generation. In an interview with Byline, Gasda said: “A Zoomer, to me, is a new social type—in the Max Weber sense—who reflects and embodies the pathologies of growing up on the Internet and coming of age during the pandemic.” Is Zoomers then the first time Gen-Z can find a genuine reflection of itself on stage?
The characters in Zoomers—forcefully and convincingly performed by the troupe—are middle- to upper-middle-class cosmopolitan types, internet-addled, irony-poisoned, and very American. Their precarity and aimlessness is a stunningly accurate reflection of what the internet has bred among Gen-Z.
Whatever action exists in Zoomers plays out with the kind of numbed emotional tenor that the generation’s members experience day to day. This atmosphere pervades the performance and the performance space: immediately upon entering the room where the play takes place, a Huron Street loft in Greenpoint, you find Jacob, played by the raffishly charming Henry Lynch, slumped on a dirty couch, dead-eyed, listlessly playing the video game Super Smash Bros while the audience filters in. Perhaps this is why Gasda sometimes calls his theatrical style “hyperreal.”
Mostly Zoomers is just talking. A lot of talking. Much of it is laugh-out-loud funny; an equal portion consists of spiraling semantic traps, a series of worsening miscommunications in which the same words never mean the same thing to two different people. A revolving assortment of roommates and friends, who sort of like each other but not really, express their endless anxieties, relitigate their sexual experiences, try (and fail) to end their relationships. The plot does not aspire toward some unified conclusion, but instead pulls its characters from unresolved conflict to unresolved conflict, testing their fickle wills. In the middle of a date, Jacob remarks upon the surge of raw emotion he felt reading the comments section on a porn site; later, his girlfriend recounts childhood trauma; both beg to be listened to—but an escape to numbness is just a bong hit away, a new medication can always be prescribed, the conversation can be changed.
That so much talking results in so little understanding testifies to the inability of internet-age adults to truly communicate. Every character demands the airtime to tell their story. The responses to these stories are always non sequiturs; everyone is merely waiting for the chance to read out their internal diary entries—or, worse yet, their internal tweets. “I’m trying to make my life, like, not a string of pathological decisions,” says the romantically jaded Ella (Sophia Englesberg). “I’m thinking of getting on the pansexual bandwagon—thoughts?” asks the narcissistic astrologist Paul (Tamir Baldwin). These tweet-like exclamations are scrolled past and forgotten by the play’s characters mere moments after their airing. Nothing is ever explicitly resolved or decided; the characters simply move on to the next stimulus, the next topic. There is no catharsis.
Because it is stretched over a period of two hours, this narrow, relentlessly self-absorbed candor can turn into a bit of a drag. And the play is often deficient in the kind of physicality that makes theatergoing unique. Yet the brilliance of the voices is undeniable. The highest achievement comes towards the middle of the second act, when the headstrong twentysomething Ella (Sophia Englesberg) brings her late-thirties boyfriend, Mark (George Olesky), back to her place. Lost in the morass of an open relationship, the two begin to talk—really talk. Bit by bit, they find themselves deconstructing the façades of detachment each has feigned under the hubristically libertine banner of polyamory that, in the end, nobody finds fulfilling. The result of their conversation, awkward as it may be, is an affirmation of individual love, and a vision of the future. “This is a hard conversation to have,” Ella says to Mark. “It is.” “But we’re having it.” “We are.”