Author: Steve Greenstein

‘Me and Mr. Lee’ Face a Crisis

Actor Lei Zhou came to the United States for a better life.

After starring in television roles in China, Lei came here on a student visa and attended Brooklyn College. He fought through a language barrier, learned English and was accepted by several high-profile theatre instructors such as Austin Pendleton and multi-Emmy and Tony Award winner Helen Gallagher to quickly earn his chops.

His real passion, however, is comedy. Think about reels of Charlie Chaplin and Three Stooges reruns. Clean, simple, physical funny. The funny bone stuff.

“Joy of comedy is powerful,” says Lei, who has applied for his U.S. citizenship. “It arouses your harmony. It makes you feel more human, more alive.”

So when Lei heard about a new dramedy web series, COVID Ditty, that his friend Steve Greenstein was developing—they met a few years back at a street-theater production—he said sign me up.

What Lei didn’t know, however, was how Episode #3 would really hit home, as in his new home… America.

The episode is an eight-minute microcosm of a crisis, which sets the table for fear of uncertainty that ultimately alters everyone’s behavior, driving some people to do bad things that they would never do under normal circumstances, while compelling others to do nice things that they would never do otherwise.

Playing The Blame Game

During the week of March 15, prompted by President Donald Trump’s choice of words during public events, the terms “kung flu”, “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus” spiked on Google Search results, going viral on social media and cable TV like a new deadly strain.

Civil liberties groups warned that such terms would incite racism against Asian Americans.

Stop AAPI Hate, a national group created to address anti-Asian American discrimination during the pandemic, reported 2,583 incidents against Asians Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States from March 19 to August 5, 2020. The data revealed that 70% of incidents involved verbal harassment and 9% involved physical assaults. The racist activity occurred at places of business (38%), public streets (20%) and public parks (11%).

Episode #3, “Me and Mr. Lee”, wraps COVID-19 and discrimination into one real-world snapshot told through Lei’s character who owns a Chinese restaurant in the Kingsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx.Coming out of the first pandemic lockdown, business remains bleak for Mr. Lee although it appears customers have retuned to other eateries along the Bronx’s Broadway. “Trump’s calling it the Chinese 

In 2020, We’ve All Been ‘de Blasioed’

Social Unrest, Broken American Dreams, More Isolation …The List Goes On

Storekeeper Vince, a second-generation Italian American, is sweeping up in the back of his family’s deli.

Smashed boxes of Aunt Jemima pancake batter are strewn across the floor, surrounded by piles of the loose ingredients that filled the air during the mayhem, along with a container of Land O’Lakes butter.

“They’re picking on the wrong people,” said Vince, whose immigrant father opened the Bronx deli in the mid-1950’s after serving in the Korean War.

Moments earlier, a group of young men had ransacked the store.

The second episode of COVID Ditty, an eight-part dramedy web series, leans heavier on the drama as it presents a tumultuous composite of the Summer of 2020 in NYC.

As COVID Ditty’s writer/director, Steve Greenstein sets the table, delivers a bounty with trimmings and hands everyone their coats in a tight six-minute serving. The parting favor? A calming ray of light that signals the storm will pass, yielding a brighter tomorrow as telegraphed by Vince’s face after the lead-character’s poignant capper: “It’s not your fault,” says Phil, played by Steve, a  Bronx-bred, film-TV-theater actor who is spending down his retirement savings to create new jobs amid the pandemic. “It’s just the sign of the times. You just got caught up in it.”

Amid the backdrop of a national lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19, the episode entitled “Sal’s Deli” captures a snapshot of a caldron bubbling over:

  • While protests took over the streets in New York City in reaction to George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody, “outsiders” took advantage of the situation and started an organized campaign to loot big-brand names in Manhattan and small businesses, mostly immigrant and minority-owned, in the Bronx, according to authorities. “To think people have a right to burn things down because it’s for a greater good,” says Steve, “is ridiculous. It came on the back of deaths. Did we really need looting by anarchists?”
  • Social media also called attention to the Aunt Jemima brand amid protests around the world as a result of Floyd’s death. Quaker Oats said it would change the name and image after admitting they were based on a racial stereotype.
  • Goya Beans became political football when the company’s CEO showed support for President Donald Trump by taking part in a White House initiative that promised better access to education for Hispanics. Goya, which is the country largest food company that caters to the Hispanic market, endured boycotts and celebrations from a polarized nation within six months of a heated presidential election.

And the pandemic raged on in the sticky, hazy heat coming up from the sidewalks and stoops. The Bronx, which is home to 1.4 million residents, has the city’s highest rates of COVID-19 cases, hospitals stays and deaths.

All the nation’s unsettling karma somehow ended up with the dry goods on the top shelf in Sal’s Deli in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx.

Unlike the oddities in Episode #1, the second installment discusses the sharp inequities that we don’t want to talk about. “It felt like society was unraveling,” says Steve, who lives a few blocks from the Fordham neighborhood where the heaviest looting and unrest took place. “I had to defriend so many people on Facebook. I couldn’t take it.”

Like Steve, Phil believes the legitimate protest over Floyd’s death was marred by malicious criminal activity from individuals not associated with the cause, harming innocent business owners in the process.

COVID Ditty’s second episode, “Sal’s Deli”, doesn’t take sides, but it gives hope. Vince the shopkeeper, played by Anthony Augello, provides perspective. Phil’s 12-year-old son, Charlie, who is a precocious whippersnapper/internet-devotee, brings today’s social commentary. And Phil clings tightly to a world that’s moving faster than the A Train during rush hour.

The episode reminds us that surviving is the poetic flipside to suffering—and they both hurt.

More Awake Than ‘Woke’

Phil, who embodies the hard-day’s-dollar-for-a-hard-day’s-work middleclass, is peculiarly lost in the middle. And he doesn’t know exactly who moved the cheese. He is not a political, cable-TV worshipping rabblerouser, but he’s his own man who values common sense more than consensus. His couches himself as a Blue Dog Democrat, who still can’t find the sides of the pool as he floats toward the deep end, while the nation’s Right and Left row in different directions.

As the lead character, Phil is more awake than “woke.” He still reads the paper, showcasing generational differences with his son, played by Andrew Terranova, and recites the ‘70s slogan, “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute” to his mini-me when he feels he’s about to be lectured. His retort reminds us that everything seemly new ain’t always shiny.

If the new coronavirus outbreak has turned the center of the universe into a confusing circus, then NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio is the ringleader, according to Phil, who turns the two-term official into a condescending verb.

“Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” proclaims Phil to his son as they stand in front of a ‘de Blasioed’-shuttered public library that was supposed to be open.

To be clear, despite winning a second term, de Blasio has never won style points with New Yorkers. He is a proud Boston Red Sox fan who eats pizza with a knife and fork.

However, Phil takes exception to more substantive points like the mayor telling city residents it was fine to take the train and go out without a mask back in March and April. In the beginning, de Blasio didn’t want the schools to close; it was New York Governor Mario Cuomo who overruled him.

According to a June poll, 11% of New York political insiders approve of de Blasio’s job performance. His decision to relocate the shelter-bound homeless into more than 60 hotels throughout the city and then reverse course after the threat of lawsuits from angry residents probably won’t make his numbers go up anytime soon.

“As my father would say,” says Charlie during the final minutes of Episode #2, “You’ve been ‘de Blasioed’!”

With theaters dark, actor creates own show – The Riverdale Press

https://riverdalepress.com/stories/with-theaters-dark-actor-creates-own-show,72569

Sunday October 4, 2020

By KIRSTYN BRENDLEN

Just weeks into the pandemic, unemployment ticked up. Workers were laid off or furloughed, and even those who still had jobs faced slashed hours and pay.

Steve Greenstein found himself among those sitting at home without a job. Even during those first weeks of March, the 40-year actor rode the 1 train to auditions, trying to find his next job. But abruptly, even those opportunities dried up as theaters closed, and film and television productions shut down.

Without work, Greenstein was stressed like most everyone else — and bored.

“It’s a very scary time for actors, it’s a very scary time when this is something you’ve done your whole life,” he said. “I’ve never been unemployed this long, ever, as an adult.”

Greenstein was used to doing eight-show weeks in local theatre, or long hours on television sets of show like Netflix’s “Iron Fist” and FX’s “Pose,” and now he found himself with plenty of time and energy — but no project.

Still, Greenstein needed a way to process what he was experiencing as he wandered around his Kingsbridge home.

“It started really just by walking the neighborhood, just to go shopping, and, you know, seeing the juxtapositions of everything,” Greenstein said. “Here we were in lockdown, but McDonald’s was open. Holy smokes, you can get drunk till you drop, the giant liquor store was open at 238th.”

He also participated in an online course from the Screen Actors Guild about using technology as an actor, especially helpful as the coronavirus pandemic forced auditions online and streaming services continued to dominate the market.

His observations of the neighborhood along with what he learned in that class birthed a new project: “COVID Ditty,” an eight-episode online series about life during the pandemic, filmed in and around his neighborhood.

Kingsbridge, Greenstein said, is the “sixth man of the basketball team” of the series, serving as more of a character than a setting.

“I find this neighborhood to be fascinating because it’s so diverse,” he said. “And I noticed the vitality in our area, as opposed to the negativity I’m always hearing of Manhattanites. The other world of luxury buildings, and the Hamptons, and all this crap.”

As the pandemic wears on, stories crop up about people fleeing the city for greener pastures — first temporarily, then permanently for some as they buy houses and supposedly settle in the suburbs. And as negative stories about the New York City flooded in, Greenstein was particularly upset by coverage of the Bronx.

“I didn’t feel like that was the true narrative,” he said. “The media kept taking shots at the Bronx, showed rioting that happened on Fordham Road, and that was supposed to be the whole borough.

“I went up to Fordham to get some clothes, what a vibrant shopping district. Going down to Fordham Road, going to the university, seeing all these kids walking around, it’s a place to get excited about.”

Beyond bringing some love to the borough, Greenstein’s production was also an opportunity to create jobs for his fellow actors, who jumped at the chance to get back to work. Greenstein’s scripts are based on his real-life experiences during the pandemic, played out through characters he created. He plays Phil, a public school custodian trying to support his young son.

In the first episode, Phil wanders through his Kingsbridge neighborhood — simply trying like everyone else to live a somewhat normal life. From keeping his mask over his nose, to chatting with the owner of the local bodega, and even meeting up with a friend for a drink on a park bench — a staple of city social life through the economic shutdown.

Greenstein needed clearance with his actors union to shoot during the pandemic, which he says was not an easy feat. And before they shoot every episode, the cast and crew all head down to Imperial Pharmacy on Corlear Avenue for a COVID-19 test.

“We have our table read at Tibbett’s” Diner, he said. “We sit in the tents over there, we have our rehearsal socially distanced at a table, so the local businesses are making money when I buy lunch for everybody. Because the ancillary benefit from producing film and television is tremendous.”

The stories in the upcoming episodes are all inspired by real-life experiences. While they were filming an episode, Greenstein joked to a character that he’d just been “de Blasio’d” after they find the library unexpectedly closed.

“As I’m saying ‘de Blasio’d,’ some guy — a construction worker — we’re saying the line, he walks back and he goes ‘Eff de Blasio,’” Greenstein joked.

He thought up another episode, “Me and Mr. Lee,” after realizing Chinese restaurants in the area had been among the first to close as the pandemic swept in and news of racist attacks against Asian people increased along with coronavirus panic. He and his TV son, played by Andrew Terranova, work to raise money for the owner of a closed Chinese restaurant after they find out he’s struggling to pay rent.

“There is humor in my scripts,” Greenstein said. “I’m trying to bring some — not joy, to the situation, but it’s the human spirit that comes out. I mean, you have to have some laughter. This is not a documentary, we’ve seen all of that. We’ve seen the body bags coming out, we’ve read the articles.

“That’s not what this is about. This is about a blue-collar guy named Phil just trying to make it with his kid.”

Steve GreensteinCOVID DittyKingsbridgeTibbett DinerImperial PharmacyAndrew TerranovaKirstyn Brendlen

Job Creator: NYC Actor Takes New Role To Heart

Amid Pandemic, Steve Greenstein Launches COVID Ditty Dramedy With His Own Savings

Steve Greenstein has never played this role before.

A Bronx-bred, film-TV-theater actor, Steve is a character actor who typically plays working-class people. Sometimes, he plays complementary roles such as an attorney opposite a headliner, like multiple Grammy- and Tony-Award winner Patti LaPone in FX’s hit show POSE. Other times, he might be a hot-dog-cart vendor on 5th Avenue opposite Isla Fisher. His job is simple: Don’t steal the sparkle from the shiny stars.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed things, including Steve. After months of isolation and continuous death-toll updates, he subconsciously decided to squint so he could see the humor amid the wreckage.

“There is a place for the human expression of some sort of  joy—or we would have all gone crazy,” says Steve, who shook the room with his booming voice as the miserable Ghost of Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol in Harlem at the Classic Theater of Harlem—before the pandemic shut down everything.

Suddenly, Steve saw juxtapositions and inequities everywhere. Schools and houses of worship closed down, but liquor stores, fast-food joints and the state lottery were open for business. Teachers expressed concern about going back to work, while minimum-wage workers at McDonald’s dished “essential” burgers seemingly around the clock.

And then Steve double-downed on the city that he loves. He has lived in Los Angeles during his actor/comedian days when he shared the stage with Sam Kinison, Louie Anderson and Jim Carrey. To support his acting habit, he also was a substitute teacher for first- and second-graders in Newark, New Jersey. But those were only placeholders for his grand return to New York City.

With Broadway locked down, Steve has started a new NYC production during the pandemic—about the pandemic—with his own cobbled-together life savings. He recently began writing an eight-part “dramedy”—COVID Ditty—a series of short vignettes that captures glimpses of oddities and ironies that we have all been too numb to fully digest. Steve is the writer, the director and the lead as “Phil”, who is a simple, lumbering, lunch-pail guy trying to make sense of the new world order.

Steve’s other new role is one of job creator. So far, he has hired SAG-AFTRA actors, like himself, for Episode 1, as well as an editor, a Go Pro cameraman, someone in charge of music, a production team and a full in-house digital marketing firm with a publicist.

The first episode was recently released online with seven more—about one per month—to follow.

Steve says the lockdown was a “spiritual thing”, which forced him to stay at home and think about stuff. “COVID Ditty came out of the lockdown,” he says. “It’s a by-product of me becoming more self-aware. As opposed to looking for my work outside of myself, I discovered that I have the power to create it. Now, I’m the one who’s giving people work.”

Great NYC Stories Begin With ‘Why?’

Steve is home alone.

His neighborhood is the epicenter of the epicenter for COVID-19, a raging global pandemic. The travel restrictions forbid him from spending time with his fiancée one ocean away. The government denies him the simple right to a haircut. The virus takes away the rest, including his ability to make a living.

Headlines about death tolls, body bags and growing rates of infection bombards the senses around the clock, along with screaming partisan politicians trying to pin the blame on someone else. Steve remains in solitary confinement, cooped up in his tiny apartment in the Kingsbridge section of The Bronx.

And then the phone rings. It’s his agent. “I need you to do a self-tape for a network show in Los Angeles,” he says.

Without hesitation, Steve agrees gleefully. “Self-tape” is the new way auditions are done remotely with a cellphone. But there’s a catch: Steve needs another reader to read the other part.

After searching franticly for help to no avail, Steve sent his demo reel instead of the scripted audition. “People were so afraid to leave their apartments, I couldn’t even find someone to read the other part! It was depressing as hell.”

At that dark moment, right before his eyes started to sweat, a thin grin races across Steve’s face. He started to kill the pain with bittersweet laughter. Comedy is one of Steve’s many survival tactics. After decades in the acting business, he knows how reinvention saves the day—and extends a career.

So he escapes his apartment and laps Van Cortlandt Park, formulating in his mind, COVID Ditty, a series of online shorts to show the world that New York City still has a pulse. While Broadway remains closed, the full-of-character actor is digging deep into his retirement savings to take a stand.

“It’s a testament,” says Steve about ongoing work. “The city is resilient. It will come back. We are artists, and we are fighting the fight back to some kind of normalcy.”

‘Your micro-neighborhood became your world’

The first episode of COVID Ditty is a tribute to the Kingsbridge section of The Bronx, which will be treated as a reoccurring character throughout the series. It’s a lower middle-class, working-class, ethnically diverse neighborhood.

Steve says the pandemic has reminded him to take care of the people that he loves, and that includes, unabashedly, his extended family of neighbors.

In one of the early scenes in Episode #1, Phil finds a case filled with Fudgie The Whales when he wanders into the neighborhood Carvel store just north on Broadway across from where the Stella D’Oro bakery, which served as a Bronx landmark for 77 years until it was sold and relocated to Ohio in 2009.

Sal’s Deli, which is really the Maswarah Deli, is situated right behind Carvel on Kingsbridge Avenue, next to the NYPD’s 50th precinct where the city’s Police Commissioner Dermot Shea was once the precinct captain.

One of Phils’ joys celebrated in Episode #1 was his long-overdue haircut in Phase II of the COVID crisis. The triumph takes place at the Crystal Rey barber shop on hopping 231st Street just up from Broadway and the New York City Subway 1 train, which is a straight shot to Manhattan and Times Square.

Moving full circle, the episode ends with all the characters making the best out of a bad situation in Van Cortlandt Park, which is where Steve created the idea for the dramedy series.

The specific locales, however, aren’t as important as the people who make them memorable. The Kingsbridge neighborhood is filled with second- and third-generation Americans who are here thanks to their immigrant parents who left everything back home for a chance to be free.

According to Steve, New York City is the tale of two cities: the posh “Goldman Sachs New York” who have the resources to cut and run to the Hamptons, Miami or points beyond when the going gets tough and the blue-collar families who grind and endure, making the city’s gears turn every day—even when the New York Post’s headline screams, “New York City is Dead Forever.”

The residents of Kingsbridge exemplify a heart of a city that keeps pumping—because they understand what is truly essential.

COVID Ditty is a New Yorker’s love letter to his neighborhood,” Steve says. “It’s a love letter for the people who went through 9/11 and the people who are going through this pandemic—and they are still HERE. They love the city. They see the good in people. They are rising above the news, all the partisan anger and rancor. They are regular joes, trying to get by. There are plenty of those people out there.”

Classical Theater of Harlem

Steve recently performed the role of Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol in Harlem at the Classical Theater of Harlem. 

Steve Greenstein with his booming voice and woeful countenance really rattled the room as the miserable Ghost of Jacob Marley.”

He looks forward to an exciting year ahead!

A Christmas Carol in Harlem

Steve can be seen as Jacob Marley in The Classical Theatre of Harlem's heartwarming production of A Christmas Carol in Harlem.

The show runs December 4th – 21st 2019 

Click here for tickets!

"Steve Greenstein with his booming voice and woeful countenance really rattled the room as the miserable Ghost of Jacob Marley."

Thank you!

Thanks to all who attended the Off-Broadway production of his play The Last Jew of Boyle Heights. Stay tuned to more exciting news about this production.

The Last Jew of Boyle Heights

Steve's play, The Last Jew of Boyle Heights, which he wrote and directs, opens Off-Broadway April 25th at the Actors Temple Theater in the heart of the NYC theater district.

Thursdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 7:30pm.

Tickets available at telecharge, and TKTs in Times Square the day of the show and at box office.

Preview audience members are saying… 

"A beautiful cast, a thought- provoking production."
"A play so topical I've recommended it to many."

From Bubby To Bat Yam

Steve begins lensing work from his successful solo play From Bubby To Bat Yam February 2019. Filming in the Bronx, New York directed by Blake Zelesnikar, for entry in the SAG-AFTRA foundation Short Film festival in March 2019.