Stalled MTA trains are so commonplace, they don't exactly scream out as containing the unique emotions a musical demands of its characters. So a show that revolves around that event demands something bigger and deeper to give it the necessary theatrical life. With Stuck, playing through next Sunday at the 45th Street Theatre as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, writer Riley Thomas envisions a single subway car as a microcosm of New York City: loud, angry, smelly, and opinionated — a melting pot that's always half a second away from full boil. But if the concept of this sort of "tin can" America is loaded with potential, it still cries out for a more daring and incisive treatment than the one it's received here.
Thomas, of course, points up diversity as the greatest asset of both the train and the city. So on a busy weekday, a sudden service stoppage wreaks havoc on a perfectly pitched collection of Manhattan types: Ramon (Danny Bolero), a Latino man desperate to get to work on time; Sue (Beth McVey), a well-to-do and well-kept woman who barely looks like she'd even know what the subway is; a young black woman named Eve (Anita Welch); and a goofy early-20s man, Caleb (Tim Young), whose eyes are buried in a comic book when they're not checking out the gorgeous but chilly Korean-American woman Alicia (E.J. Zimmerman) he followed into the car. And, naturally, there's an aging black homeless man, Lloyd (Mel Johnson, Jr.), who insists on paying for his next meal by forcing everyone to listen to his Shakespeare monologues and then soliciting cash for them.
Even so, Lloyd is naturally the fulcrum around whom events turn, the outsider who sees the others far more clearly than they see themselves. You tend to think, as the 90-minute show unfolds, that he's even pulling the cosmic strings in the background, as this group of people could not be better matched. A politically conservative Asian woman who was adopted into a white family squaring off against both a poor black woman and an illegal immigrant? A Bible thumper forced to confront someone who sees abortion as the best possible choice for leading a fulfilling life, and someone who's the spitting image and personality of her child who recently committed suicide? Even on its best days, New York doesn't get this dramatically astute.
That's a big problem for Stuck, but less of one than its apparent lack of desire to be anything else. The book scenes never evolve or build on one another; they're content with a revue-like structure that encourages neither involved plotting nor compelling characterizations, instead settling for whatever the moment requests, regardless of whether or not it's a good idea. (Sue's change from a stuffy upper-cruster to a moral crusader is especially jarring in this regard.)
Riley is a decent, if unadventurous, tunesmith who has no trouble sustaining his individual ideas for a few minutes at a time, but he's less adept at building a complex tapestry from those individual pieces. The score has a piecemeal feeling that gives the impression of songs from disparate sources stitched together. Each new number plays as simply an excuse for more manufactured conflict that can dissipate as soon as each of the six realizes that they're all in it (meaning life) together. There may occasionally be something original or unexpected — "I Break Into Your House" cleverly recasts the illegal immigration debate as one of personal property rights — but usually it's a time-filler like "The Subway Samba" or the a capella title song, killing time until the obligatory "What Everyone Wants" finale can demonstrate just how different we all aren't.
At least the cast is superbly chosen as a study in contrasts in terms of appearances, voice types, and personalities, with the brash Zimmerman and the unassuming Young particular standouts acting-wise, and McVey's vocals lending a much-needed warmth to an otherwise harsh song stack. But there's only so much any of them can do to bring life and motion to the proceedings: Director Michael Berry has not had an easy time devising exciting new approaches for staging each scene with only two banks of benches to work with, and the script and score are too landlocked to allow the flights of fancy that might make the static setup jolt to attention every few minutes. (The 2009 Frankel-Korie-Weidman musical Happiness, also set in still subway car, used fantasy riffs to overcome this same problem, to considerably stronger effect.)
Ultimately, however, it's the inertia of the writing that's much more damaging. The show so wants to be everything in general that it settles for being nothing specific, and that's never a good place to begin. Thomas displays a genuine knack for recognizing the merry and maddening nuances of the city's humanity, but needs to find a better outlet than the generic feel-good semi-romp he's developed here. Maybe a straight-up song cycle would be a better choice? After all, it's in telling its story that Stuck so frequently goes off the rails.
2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival