by Steve Nardoni
Several rows of fixed folding chairs on either side of the stage face sterile and appropriate scenery: merely six wooden benches. As we enter the theater for Shrapnel Theatre and Hartshorn-Hook Foundation’s Underground (directed by Kate Tiernan), James lies sleeping on one, and on another bench Claire sits, contemplating her hands.
But even before we entered the theater, we were given a peek of what was to come. The answer to the questions asked by the usher “Single? In a relationship? It’s complicated?” earned each in the audience a color sticker for their answer. So this way the deus ex machina of the Voice Over at the beginning of the show could encourage the audience to connect:
Don’t look for too long. Look. Then look away. Then look back. Hold, briefly. A few seconds perhaps. Did they see? Awkward. Now away again. Good. Excellent. Congratulations. You’re flirting with a stranger in a theatre. You tart.
So we are introduced to this well-crafted play about loneliness and the evolution (or dissolution) of relationships. A stalled London Night Tube is the laboratory in which James and Claire come to grips with their preconceived notions about themselves, which are:
James: I think the most powerful thing a human being can be is to be happy by themselves, some kind of form of whole on their own. Whole and alone. That’s the dream, isn’t it?
Claire: And now here I am. Am I alone here? This is who we are. Isn’t this the fate of Generation Y?
Both Michael Jinks playing James and Bebe Sanders as Claire are engaging, so real that it seems as if you have known them for years. Isla van Trich’s dialogue compellingly reinforces the reality and subtlety of the production.
Despite the fact that daily they both ride the same Tube, they’ve never met, too enrapt into their devices (like all of us) to notice the moment. The Voice Over implores the commuters to scribble and feel where they are. They don’t and neither do we. But James and Claire connect on the Happn app (the construct of their connecting is hilarious and familiar) which is maybe the scribbling the Voice Over was endorsing?
They meet at a local pub for the first date, lamenting their student loans, high rent, hated jobs: “living the dream” while never giving up smoking. Enter Steve, the pub manager, who bores them with pictures of his daughter’s wedding in Ibiza, but, uncannily, acknowledges their ennui and hopelessness with some sage advice: “Security is a lie to stop you from following your own path. Don’t believe it. Don’t think you’ve lost because you didn’t land the first swing.”
On the way home on the Night Tube, after a few minutes of idle “date chat,” the train is suddenly stalled. With two dead cell phones, time stops for the couple. James kicks into profound fear and a pathological attachment to the Night Bus. Claire admits she has “a supremely over-inflated sense of [her] own importance and worth.” With defenses down and time standing still, what follows is banter, connection and disconnection between the two that might otherwise have taken several dates to achieve. Also there to reinforce the theme is a man on the train (Andrew McDonald) with them who says: “I like disruption. Makes you stop for a moment.” And the Voice Over reminding James and Claire that “the solid banality of routine” is just that. We need to see, listen, feel and not go through life, zombie-like.
The play continues to another meeting three months later and another tube ride, another chance to shake off the banality. With their stellar, relaxed, totally believable performances, Michael Jinks, Bebe Sanders and Andrew McDonald all convince us what is possible.
Underground. Through July 2, as part of Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues). www.59e59.org
Photos: Carol Rosegg