Death In A Dive Bar

Lily Padilla went on a bar crawl and talks to William Burke about his new show at The Bushwick Starr and wrote up this story.

playwright William Burke

playwright William Burke

Playwright William Burke’s uncle died suddenly in a small Colorado ski town.The wake was held in a dirty old bar called the Dog Bar.  Everyone brought heavy funeral food. It’s the Southwest, so we’re talking enchiladas, thick dips and trays of chicken. William’s sister, a stand-up comic, was nominated to MC the wake. Upon returning to New York City, William doubled over in a stomach ache. He had to lay down. The next day, on the subway, he began to write.

Burke wrote the food was terrible in three days.  It was 2010. From May 14-31, you can catch Burke’s creation at The Bushwick Starr and watch actors Noel Joseph Allain and Evander Duck step into Burke’s existential world of loss, love and the sentences we can’t finish.

The play is set in a dive bar, inspired by the time William overheard someone say what would become the first (and repeating) line of the food was terrible.

“I was at your daughter’s wake.”

At first, William struggled to start the play, writing one line then another. Quickly, he’d find himself stuck. The conversation in this two-character play kept ending abruptly.  So he began again. “I was at your daughter’s wake.” The conversation stalled again. Burke began again. “I was at your daughter’s wake.” This pattern kept repeating and suddenly, Burke noticed that he’d compiled 20 pages of starts and stops.

“You see a moment where they [the characters, Y and O, (or young and old)] could start over. The play happens so they can get rid of something. They can take something and leave it in the bar. Whether it is a feeling of grief, mourning, an idea of something you can’t get over.”

The bar becomes a purgatory for conversations you can’t quite finish or resolve.  Somehow a bar lowers expectations, Burke explains, “In a bar, you can just stop talking. There’s a logic to a bar where if you don’t want something to be said again, it can be swept away and you take what you want to take.”


But, as set designer Jason Simms pointed out early in the process, in life you can’t ever quite mop the slate clean. A mop merely pushes grime around, always leaving residue.

William and I are conducting this interview in Farrell’s Bar and Grill in Park Slope. The sign out front looks old and intentionally vintage. I walk inside expecting a self-aware hipster bar. I push the heavy wooden door and enter another world—I am the youngest person in the bar by about 20 years and the only woman. This is the real deal, no crostinis or rosemary infused cocktails. Just beers, dudes and conversation. You can feel the years layer upon each other. Don’t expect to get a meal here. Farrell’s Bar and Grill hasn’t served food since 1942, you can just deal with the misnomer.

To Burke, dive bars don’t deserve their derogatory connotations. They’re just older bars, shaped by the patrons who’ve made “a butt groove in a stool,” to use Burke’s terminology. Burke and I start to nerd out about old New York and our most nostalgic venues, especially the ones that are extinct or close to it—Roseland, Pearl Paint, 5 Pointz…

“I went to Arlene’s Grocery. It’s this great place with a huge history of music, but it was painted! I’m sure the bathroom was spectacular…”

He trails off, his eyes sparkling wistfully. We sip our beers, imagining what might’ve been written on the walls.

Burke continues, “The Starr is starting to have that feeling, things have been left there, different performances have happened, and you can feel that when you walk in. You feel that in the Ontological, there is so much left in there, that’s what makes it so exciting to be there. The bar and the theater have a similar feel in this way.”

Burke, raised atheist, craves ritual and communal healing in his artmaking. When I asked him what he hopes to give the audience, he responded, “I hope they can leave something, just get rid of something, feel a little lighter than when they walked in. Just a little bit. That’s what theater can function as, a receptacle.”

Burke’s play paints an idealistic picture of drinking, bars and community, but Burke argues that you must consider the ideal in order to understand the function of a system and its problems.

“It’s unhealthy to look at an alcoholic and think ‘that guy just goes to the bar and drinks.’ Why does he go to the bar? Probably for a very idealistic reason!  For community and to sit there and to have something surround that person.”

Burke and I migrate from Farrell’s Bar and Not Grill to the bar where Burke originally heard the first line of the play: Rhythm & Booze. R&B is a no-fuss joint straddling the corners of Prospect and 10th Aves in Windsor Terrace. There were rumors that this place would close, but Burke never believed them.  Though now he’s not so sure, “It probably will [close].”

“When the people who go there every day stop going there,”  I offer.

“When it’s just me coming here, it becomes something else.” Burke laughs a bit.

“It morphs to meet demand,” I say.

We sit in the bar, our butts grooving into the stools that will one day be gone.

Then it’s time for us to go home, or wherever we’re calling home right now.

the food was terrible plays at The Bushwick Starr, May 14-31, tickets at

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