The Coronavirus Crisis Reveals New York at Its Best and Worst

There are, as well, the small, crushing disappointments that, though reasonably lost in the larger life-and-death clamor, are very real to the people they have happened to. The actress Ilana Levine had just opened in a new play, “The Perplexed,” by Richard Greenberg—a comeback of sorts for her—when all theatres, concert venues, and night clubs were closed. “You know, I had been on Broadway a lot when I was younger,” she said. “But then came L.A. and children. . . . And out of the blue I got this call to do this play of Richard’s, with the idea that, after all this time, I’d be back on the stage in New York, which I missed desperately. So all of these things I’d been dreaming of happened, and with it came so much fear and anxiety: ‘Can I make it work?’ ” She laughed at the idea of what fear and anxiety meant a few days earlier—having too much to memorize.

“The play is about family and struggle and old hurts and people having to be, in this sort of Sartre way, perpetually closed off in the space of one room with each other,” she continued. “So now the play and the reality are one, in ways I could never have imagined. Except I don’t get to do it in this world, with an audience.” The evocative set, designed by Santo Loquasto, of a New York town house, has not yet been struck from the Manhattan Theatre Club stage, she said. “So all of us keep thinking of that set, and how we want to get to it, be on it—the company, even without an audience, just to work together on it. Actors are not people who know how to isolate. We are suddenly physically frozen at this moment.”

The young musical-theatre actress Abena Mensah-Bonsu, cast in a significant role in a new show, “Nollywood Dreams,” had been commuting in from New Jersey, feeling all the ancient excitement of a big break. Now she sits at home and is eager to get back to the theatre. “Acting is the opposite of social distancing,” she said, echoing Levine. “Even if you’re introverted, as I am. So, when we sit in place, we long to be engaged with someone.” On Broadway, the theatres are empty, but the lights have still been on, as though the theatres were willing the shows to continue.

One irony of this pandemic is that, while it exposes the gaps in our social and medical safety nets, it also punishes people for behaving well. Communities with the healthiest intergenerational relationships seem to be at greater risk than those that sequester older people in nursing homes. Italy, one study shows, has been so hard hit by the coronavirus because there the young and the old have the beautiful habit of mingling together. Grandparents are accustomed to being with their grandchildren.


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