The London Underground can be devilishly tricky if you don’t know what you’re doing. For a start, the map you’d use to navigate the city bears very little resemblance to what exists in reality. It isn’t unheard of for a passenger to hop on a line and transfer three times over the course of 40 minutes to end up only blocks from where they started. So it takes experience to learn the ins and outs. Kind of like modern dating, as playwright Isla van Tricht seems to suggest in her new play, Underground, now playing at 59E59 Theaters.
Claire and James cross paths constantly. They take the same tube to the same stops every day of the week, but they just don’t realize it until a popular swipe-based dating app points it out. She’s pleased by his minimal and mature profile photos. He thinks she has a nice smile. Why not give it a try?
The two aren’t perfectly paired by any stretch, but they aren’t a complete mismatch either and so they might as well give it a try. That’s how you do these things now. The night of their first maybe-a-date starts off well. They keep up a conversation that is by odds open enough to suggest a possible future, but also full of awkward moments to understand if they said goodnight and lost each other in the crowd again. He’s a bit dark and…flannelish, relating to characters from The Breakfast Club rather than more recent or age-appropriate cultural figures. She’s saucy and breezy in a way that speaks to the confidence of youth rather than caprice or irresponsibility. She actually knows what she wants—she’s even written a list—though it’s clear from their conversation that she’s still pliable. And he does try to ply.
There are a lot of cute and funny moments throughout the piece, but there’s a chance that several could be missed depending on which side of the stage you sit to face. Most of the action takes place in a subway car during an unexpected stop in the middle of the night. As Claire (Bebe Sanders) and James (Michael Jinks) discuss what twists and turns have brought them out and what it was about the other that encouraged meeting up, they run into some awkward conversation. It is not, however, as awkward as the existential voice that flows from the PA system that they can both hear, though only one at a time.
While there were stronger productions in the Brits Off Broadway series this year, Underground makes a solid showing for itself. It doesn’t have polish, but it feels like it comes from an honest place—even down to the fact that Claire can get pressured into a few hesitant romantic moves and James’ awkward verbal diarrhea about how awkward he can be. They do amuse each other, but not so much that it’s a sure thing. However, in a very distancing and increasingly (somewhat paradoxically) large but lonely social web, the potential for close human contact can be a persuasive influence. Throw in the appearance of a pair of doppelgängers and a broken-down Northern Line train, and that mysterious voice you have a recipe for a lasting encounter.
Tricht’s script has a few quirks, possibly a couple of philosophical concepts more than necessary, but it’s a lot of fun. If it feels a bit like a student project, at least it’s a really good one. Director Kate Tiernan has to make a lot with very little and pulls it off in a very pleasant manner, though it’s hard to say what is meant by the audience relationship categorization that doesn’t actually go anywhere. (But hey, who doesn’t like a sticker?)
In the end, we don’t know if they’ll make it or not, but James and Claire are actually kind of endearing and you may find yourself rooting for them. Underground makes a good argument for getting connected, but also putting down our phones. As they talk you may want to think about the last time you had such a full exchange of ideas for so long without interruption. An hour Underground is a good start.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Top: Michael Jinks and Bebe Sanders
Produced by Shrapnel Theatre & Hartshorn – Hook Foundation for Brits Off Broadway
Through July 2, 2017