Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
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
Underground Produced by Shrapnel Theatre & Hartshorn – Hook Foundation for Brits Off Broadway 59E59 Theaters Through July 2, 2017
Cats, kittens and all you beautiful people, you simply mustn’t miss His Royal Hipness Lord Buckley and the man who stands in for the legend, one Jake Broder. Buckley’s hep, you hear? A hipster in the original sense of the word—not a lick of flannel in sight, opting for a white waistcoat and tails—and Broder stoked the flames, blowing hot tunes and slinging smoky jazz lingo in cool beat meter. Don’t be a square! If you dig classic licks and linguistic tricks, spend two out-of-this-world hours with Jake Broder and co. He’s feels the rhyme, the rhythm sublime, and I strongly suggest you make the time to get to 59E59 before Buckley and his merry band skip town.
That merry band includes Michael Lanahan as the Hip News Man and Abraham Lincoln, and a tight trio of piano, bass and drums manned by Mark Hartman, Brad Russell, and Daniel Glass, respectively. They swing into action with some “Money Jungle” and “Night in Tunisia” before Lanahan and Broder take the stage, hitting their stings and providing flawless accompaniment. Where Lanahan’s News Man cuts a lean and clean figure with thick black plastic frames and a high-and-tight haircut, Broder’s Buckley, despite the polish and tails, seems ready to bust out all over the place—in song, in dance, with a faux doobie stuffed between two fingers on one hand while the other snaps to punctuate his proposals. His voice moves from the Queen’s English in smooth RP to the gravelly tones of a handful of Southern characters in varying shades of unsettling.
In fact, between the hijinks and hilarity there are brief pauses in the action wherein Broder’s Buckley transitions from delightful to downright disconcerting when it comes to short vignettes regarding characters of African ancestry and their treatment, historically. Being as enamored of a style of music borne from the minds of beleaguered black men and women in an often hostile America, it makes sense to remind the Upper East Side audience of the crucible in which jazz was forged and refined. Never is this reminder more acute than before the lights fall on the first half, during a provocative version of “Georgia On My Mind.” Sure, the feeling is compounded by the fact that these voices are coming from a white dude in a fancy suit, but it’s clearly a performance grounded in earnest deference. And it’s never a bad thing to know from whence came the things we love, and especially the people who brought them to be.
The original Lord Buckley was an American comedic monologist in the 1940s and 50s whose act gave inspiration to the beat generation as well as the hippies and a cadre of cool 1950s artistic types the likes of Norman Mailer and Quincy Jones. He was a vessel through which flowed the lingo of a passing age, coming from influences on both sides of the pond. In his quieter moments he sounded like the proper Lord, but turned loose he let the jazz ethos run buck wild through his snazzy self and out into the world.
In the first half of this show, Buckley tackles seasonal favorites like A Christmas Carol and the tale of the Pied Piper. In the second half, Broder and co. turn their sights on the land of the free, performing a hip love letter to Honest Abe as well as expounding on more current events—though seen through hopeful, love-forward, rose-colored lenses. And through it all, Broder keeps his performance humming. It looks like no easy feat reciting all that purple-tinted prose, but he does so without a stumble. He’s high energy, high pathos, high minded and would allude to being just plain old high, though that is most certainly a nod to the habits of jazz’s past. I can’t imagine pulling off a performance like that while under any kind of mellowing influence. He takes the original Buckley’s work and runs with it, switching with ease from Received Pronunciation to something thick and soulful, never dropping character nor letting the energy flag. He’s sharp—sharply dressed, sharp of mind, quick of tongue—but at the same time offers a softer solution to the world’s ills. “Don’t Hate, Love Harder.” Take that beat to the streets, guys and dolls. Let it be known.
“…faith steps in when all facts fail…love leaping unafraid into the empty spaces between us and the unknown—“
The titular metropolis of James Phillips’ City Stories: Tales of Love and Magic in London, now playing as part of 59E59’s regular Brits Off-Broadway series, is a minor but important character in a collection of deceptively simple narratives. Her narrow old streets and tireless river wind their way through the accounts of events both massive in scale and momentous in their profound intimacy. It is the loom on which Phillips has spun some lovely, captivating yarns.
Phoebe Sparrow, Matthew Flynn in Pearl
Each short tale begins in a small moment, the carrying out of one’s daily routine or a single act of noticing, and unfolds to become expansive—in emotion if not in scale. There is simplicity and elegance in their telling, mysteriousness bordering on confessional delivery that reels one in seductively, enchantingly, like a lover. And if there is one core notion on which City Stories balances, it’s love. Love that, for better or for worse, when harnessed in all its potential, can open eyes and change lives.
There are six tales in all, four presented at each performance. (See the 59E59 website for a schedule.) The night I attended the selection was Occupy, Lullaby, Narcissi and Pearl. Singer/songwriter Rosabella Gregory took her place at the baby grand piano in the corner and played before, after, and during each of the Stories. Her voice is high and clear—reminiscent of Kate Bush without all those reverberating production effects. It’s a sharp and highly evocative voice that can soothe or sting, and it does both over the course of the two-hour production.
Daphne Alexander, Tom Gordon in Lullaby
The setting is something different for 59E59. The theater has been transformed into a cabaret-style lounge, with tiny cocktail tables, each topped with a single soft candle. The set is simplicity itself, consisting of two tall bar stools—and even those sometimes seem extraneous. The actors take their places, the words begin to flow, and suddenly it isn’t just a small, dark space but a river of memories as expansive as imagination if you allow yourself to be swept away.
Louisa Clein in The Great Secret
There are seven actors carrying the weight of six pieces. Though the sheer volume of words could have made it feel like heavy lifting for some, the performances never felt anything but graceful. Considering the caliber of actors, that isn’t a surprise. What was a nice surprise was how much the show depends on women. Of the four stories, only one, Occupy, came completely from a man’s perspective, and even then a woman was the driving force behind the action, her actions becoming the reason for the narrator’s personal development.
The other wonderful thing is how sure and unapologetic these women are. Even when they suggest a wrong decision had been made, that they could have taken another path when given a choice, that they could have lived to make others—and maybe even themselves—happier or more comfortable, they stand by their choices.
Daphne Alexander, Sarah Quintrell in Lullaby
With no fourth wall to speak of, each performance felt as much a conversation as a performance, with rhetorical questions, jokes and the occasional sly wink sent directly to the audience. They look you in the eye and feel unashamed. That sustained eye contact made it easy to let go and slip into the world behind the words to see it through the characters’ eyes. And being full of magic and tranquil gardens and soaring architecture and secret notebooks, a wonderful world it is.
Photos by James Phillips
Top photo: L-R: Tom Gordon, Rosabella Gregory, Sarah Quintrell in Narcissi.