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The Great Northeast Blackout of 1965 Remembered Well

At 5:27 p.m. on November 9, 1965, something happened to a relay switch at the Niagara Falls generating station, in Queenston, Canada, sending an unexpected surge of power through the lines and most of the northeastern United States was plunged into total darkness. The great blackout, that affected 30 million people, lasted thirteen hours in many places. 800,000 people were trapped on New York City’s subways and traffic lights went out, causing massive automobile backups. The glittering skyline of New York City went dark. The electrical catastrophe scared the whole country.

Kim Rosenstock’s new play, Fly by Night, written with Will Connolly and Michael Mitnick, that opened last week, tells the story of several of the people in New York City when the lights went out. What happened at 5:27 p.m. that night was as unexpected as most events in their lives. The writers’ story is low keyed, slow moving, too long and a bit cumbersome, although charming, in act one but just beautiful in act two. That’s when the writers crawl into the minds of the people in their play and pull them away from the dazzling lights of the city and stroll with them out of darkened homes into the open air on city sidewalks. Thousands of tiny stars are scattered on the walls and ceiling of the theater to recreate the night sky, starry and lit by a full moon that historical night.

The play is the story of New York sandwich maker Harold, who falls in love with newly arrived actress Daphne, who shares a small apartment with her sister Miriam. The pair is from South Dakota and mesmerized by Manhattan. Harold‘s problem is that he is as much in love with Miriam as he is with Daphne. Another problem he has is that his life is going nowhere at the tiny deli where he works, day after day, creating dull sandwiches with his boss, whose own dreams were shattered long ago.

Walking through the play from time to time is Mr. McCLam, Harold’s father, whose wife died and left him a ‘La Traviata’ opera record, that he carries all over as his memory of her. He is in desperate shape, stumbling from day to day and week to week in inconsolable grief.

The lives of the characters in the play all seem headed for bad endings and then, suddenly, in a breathless second, the northeast United States went completely dark.

The last twenty minutes of the play, when the lights go out, is marvelous to see. The playwrights skillfully tells their story but, at the same time, recreate the history of the blackout and what it did to the people of New York, and elsewhere, on that strange and starry night, a night that will live in the memories of all who experienced it.

New York City officials fully expected riots and looting and brought in more police, but little happened. They expected panic in the streets, but everybody remained cool. They expected everyone to be disoriented, but everybody was calm. The play, pretty accurately written, relates the many small wonderful vignettes of that night. Millions of people, all over the northeast, left their darkened homes and went out into the streets to talk to neighbors. They chatted al night with friends on the sidewalks and streets. Many cooked dinners on front lawns, drank beer and partied till the lights went back on. Thousands re-united with people with whom they had lost contact. Battery powered flashlights and candles lit up the cities. An eerie, but wonderful, calm was experienced everywhere. There was some apprehension, of course, especially from those stuck in the subways, but, overall, the night passed easily and the world lit up again by dawn

The first act of this look at what happened in 1965 is sluggish and meandering, but there is something utterly delightful about the characters in it. The writers have crated very real, buoyant young people, and old people, stuck in a moment of history. They represent so many of us then, and now, that it is uncanny. New Yorkers, all Americans, were strong and resilient that night.It reminded me of New York and the metropolitan area, and many areas, in the terrible days following Hurricane Sandy, when so many towns lost power and the tunnels and streets were flooded. American came together during and after Sandy, just as they did in the 1965 blackout.

Oh, the blackout of 1965 also gave birth to one of America’s great urban legends. The legend is that, with nothing to do, hundreds of thousands of Americans had sex that night and nine months later the largest mass birth in U.S history took place. Everybody loved that story and grinned from ear to ear when it was told, but researchers later debunked it. The birth rate nine months later was normal.

Director Carolyn Cantor did a fine job with the show, even though it was twenty minutes or so too long. She had wonderful performances by Adam Chanler Berat as Harold, Patti Murin and Allison Case as Daphne and Miriam, Peter Friedman as Mr. McClam, Michael McCormick as the deli owner, Bryce Ryness as a theater director Joey Storms and Henry Stram as the narrator..

PRODUCTION: The play was produced by Playwrights Horizon. Sets; David Korins, Costumes: Paloma Young, Lighting: Jeff Croiter, Sound: Ken Travis and Alex Hawthorn, Choreography: Sam Pinkleton. The play was directed by Carolyn Cantor.