A play about the New York City subway must be really sure of itself if it dares to start by subjecting you to an omnipresent saxophonist, a panhandler who “earns” his money by singing “This Little Light of Mine” and shaking a cup of change, and a schoolgirl selling candy to raise money for her high school uniforms. Yet Tales from the Tunnel, which just opened at the 45 Bleecker Street Theatre, has every reason to be confident. These opening events may be enough to send experienced transit riders screaming away into the night, but the show itself is much more entertaining than your average (or above-average) ride on the N train.
The cast of six (Farah Bala, Geri Brown, Carla Corvo, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Brandon Jones, and Vayu O’Donnell), all wearing T-shirts representing a different subway line, recite a 90-minute litany of experiences most subway riders can relate to and a few that most probably can’t. Smelly homeless people. Annoying teenagers. People falling asleep on each other, or ravishing each other. More musicians (chiefly an accordionist who plays “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”). Everyday, once-in-a-while, and once-in-a-lifetime riders. A group trying to break the world record for the least amount of time needed to ride every train and visit every station. A haunting memorial to the World Trade Center dead from a train passing over the Brooklyn Bridge on September 11, 2006.
It’s all little more than a fast-moving montage, which doesn’t seem written and directed by Troy Diana and James Valletti (based on interviews with those who use and work on the subway) as much as it does allowed to exist. For a 90-minute outing about zippy (well, in theory) underground transportation, however, the blink-and-you-miss-it approach is highly appropriate, and contributes to the transitory nature of many of the experiences depicted. And there are far fewer misses than you might expect with a show of this nature — if the evening doesn’t have the kind of dramatic build you may hope for (or, really, any at all), it at least maintains a consistent level of quality, humor, and pathos throughout.
Everyone in the cast demonstrates copious amounts of versatility, as they swap back and forth between dozens of personalities, some of which have through lines but many who don’t. Heredia, a Tony winner for Rent, brings an edgy exuberance to that accordion player and a number of other characters. Brown has a delightful running gag as an MTA employee who always has a screechy, silly tale to tell. Corvo plays both a punk-Goth chick and a series of increasingly tormented suburban girls. Jones unlocks more humanity than you might expect in a few different subway announcers, and has a charming as a lonely soul who found a surrogate mother on the subway on the day of the Gay Pride Parade. Bala and O’Donnell both have moving turns as people from very different walks of life whose declining economic fortunes surprisingly depend on the subway.
It’s many virtues aside, the show ultimately plays very much like a Fringe Festival show — it was a hit there, and subsequently at FringeNYC Encores last year. (Its current venue was even a Fringe Festival last year, though this show didn’t play there.) Its nothing-but-chairs scenic design only enhances the comparison, though the fact that they’re colored (by Anastasia Amelchakova, of a+i design corp) in the super-familiar yellows and oranges of the older trains adds an extra dose of cleverness. The thrown-together, and frankly often shallow, feel won’t be for everyone. It is, at its best, a diversion that never really goes anywhere. But unlike so many of the trains that are its primary subjects, Tales From the Tunnel makes getting there considerably more than half the fun.
Tales from the Tunnel