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Underground

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 18, 2017


Michael Jinks and Bebe Sanders
Photo by Carol Rosegg

New York subway regulars will undoubtedly empathize with the couple who are stuck on a broken-down train in London's Underground at the end of a pleasant/awkward first date, in Isla van Tricht's quirky romantic comedy Underground, opening today as part of Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theaters.

The compact play, running just about an hour, focuses on a pair of twenty-somethings, James (Michael Jinks) and Claire (Bebe Sanders). They have hooked up via a dating App that matches you with people whose paths you've unknowingly crossed, running interference with those potentially lost opportunities of ships (or, in this case, tube riders) that pass in the night. If you are interested in their posted photos and intros, swipe right, exchange texts, and arrange to meet for a drink. What could be easier?

The truth is, technology can take you just so far. These Gen Y-ers find that first dates are just as uncomfortable for them as they were for their parents and grandparents. You still have to figure out how to put your best foot forward, avoid saying something totally graceless, and hope for the best. By the time they meet up at a pub, we have learned something about each of them, how both feel stuck in the unfulfilling routine of their lives and how each is insecure and lonely. When they get together, they warily check each other out as they reach for "safe" topics of conversation: their mutual dislike of coffee, the difficulty of finding affordable housing, and whether or not this get-together "counts" as an actual date. James thinks it does, while Claire finds the idea to be a bit overwhelming. "Isn't there like something before a date?" she asks. "Like a "hang out" or "meeting" or "rendezvous" or something?"

While the pair are ducking and weaving between ambivalence and attraction, they are joined by Steve (Andrew McDonald), the pub keeper, purveyor of folksy advice, and, perhaps, a sort of overseer who will show up in another guise later that evening when the "night tube" they are riding in breaks down between stations.

When it does, time seems to stop for James and Claire (neither has a watch, and both of their phones have mysteriously died). Both are sleepy, perhaps a little bit intoxicated after their shared drinks, and the play takes a surrealistic turn in keeping with their mental state. They are the only ones in the car, save for a man (a dead ringer for the pub keeper Steve) who may or may not be asleep in a corner. The couple's interactions become more personal, if disjointed. James wants her to spend the night at his place, even if it's just for a "kiss and cuddle," but the most Claire will concede is, "if we don't die down here, I might stay at your (flat)."

At one point, they start to kiss and grope one another, but the presence of the-the-man-who-might-be-Steve is too off-putting for them to continue. Adding to the strangeness of their situation, from time to time a voice comes over the intercom making enigmatic announcements: "You are riding in a tube carriage. Something vital has struck here and split the solid banality of routine in two."

The purpose of this "Twilight Zone" interlude is unclear, other than to signify that the two young people are being jolted out of the predictability and complacency of their lives. After a while, things return to normal, the train takes off, and James and Claire likewise move forward. Whether or not they will move forward together remains in the realm of hopeful-but-uncertain.

All in all, it is the charming and credible performances of Mr. Jinks and Ms. Sanders, under Kate Tiernan's direction, that make the evening such an enjoyable one. Even without the offbeat events in the stalled tube, the time we've spent with them has been a smile-inducing act of eavesdropping on a pair of amiable, slightly off-kilter characters. We can only wish them well as we exit, taking heed to mind the gap!


Underground
Through July 2
59E59 Theaters, Theater C, 59 East 59th Street between Madison and Park Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral


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