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.”