Bridge & Tunnel written and performed by Sarah Jones. Directed by Tony Taccone. Scenic design by David Korins. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Christopher Cronin.
What makes an outsider an outsider? What he says? What he does? Where he lives or works? Or are we all outsiders, continually searching for a place to belong and people to belong with?
Sarah Jones seizes on that last possibility with her show Bridge & Tunnel. Yes, your skin color, your actions, your lineage, and even your address all define you, she argues throughout. But however different we may be from each other, we're all members of that great family called New Yorkers. And, oh yeah, we're all Americans, too - we're all inside while we're all outside.
By any reasonable definition, though, Jones is no longer much of an outsider. She might have cut her teeth at downtown venues like P.S. 122 and the Nuyorican Poets Café, but she's mainstream now. Give some credit to Meryl Streep: Jones caught the eye and the fancy of the Academy Award-winning actress, who produced the original Off-Broadway run of Bridge & Tunnel, which opened at the Culture Project in February 2004 and ran and ran and ran.
Jones has finally arrived on Broadway, where the show just reopened at the Helen Hayes, and she shows no sign of either slowing down or breaking a sweat. So if you missed Bridge & Tunnel the first time, you now have another chance to see what all the fuss was about.
And what was all the fuss about? Good question.
Watching the show today, one can easily understand its Off-Broadway allure: Being mere feet away from an astonishing young woman capable of transforming her body and soul into people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities is the kind of spine-tingling prospect Off-Broadway has always thrived on. And the notion (now proven more or less correct) that a major, unappreciated talent is morphing into a genuine theatre star as she does so... well, that generates its own excitement.
But on Broadway, Jones has the unfortunate habit of overshadowing the show itself at every turn. Not once during its 90-minute running time does what she's doing ever prove as captivating as how she's doing it. One can't help but suspect that's because she never defines the "what" clearly enough.
Is Bridge & Tunnel, for example, a one-woman play? No - it has over a dozen characters, but no real dramatic throughline. So it's a character study? No again - that would require deeper, more evocative explorations than Jones provides; you would need to feel that these aren't just worth knowing, but that they're worth knowing well, and that never happens. What emerges instead is an overwhelming affection for the multicolored, multitextured, and multifaceted panoply of people who make New York City and the United States so remarkable.
That's almost - almost - reason enough to care about the contrived setup that allows Jones to delve into 90 minutes of exquisite impersonations of just those people. Welcome to the Bridge & Tunnel Theater, located in "beautiful South Queens" near the JFK Airport, where the group I.A.M.A.P.O.E.T.T.O.O. (Immigrant and Multiculturalist American Poets or Enthusiasts Traveling Toward Optimistic Openness) is having its fifth annual gathering. Emceed by Mohammed Ali - who came to the U.S. from Pakistan in 1985, and insists he's already heard all the jokes - it's an opportunity for poets (or enthusiasts) to share their personal worldviews with their fellow "outsiders."
Among them: A young Vietnamese man recites a slam-poetry tirade against rampant Asian stereotyping; a Jamaican performance artist recreates her first, frigid day in New York; a Chinese woman, who refers to homosexuality as "an American problem," is nonetheless preparing for an immigration hearing for her daughter's soon-to-be-deported girlfriend.
Jones, under Tony Taccone's direction, plays these and others expertly. As an elderly Jewish woman from Long Island, who compares the treatment of immigrants when she was a girl to the state of relations today (and whose poem is "No, Really, Please, Don't Get Up"), her hands shake with involuntary, yet orderly motion. Jones later effortlessly drops 20 years from her age to adopt the wide-eyed stagefright of an 11-year-old girl whose poem lashes out at growing up. And when Jones's voice catches as a Mexican labor organizer speaking of love found and lost, what could too easily be gimmicky and artificial resonates as long-bottled acidic regret bubbling painfully to the surface.
Jones does all this with but a few simple props and only representative costume pieces over her black shirt and pants (no designer is credited). This aspect of her art is the very essence of theatre, and the best part of her accomplished acting work; it was doubtlessly especially electric Off-Broadway, where the absence of physical trappings and larger-theater expectations could force the audience to become an even more integral part of the experience.
But with the audience now farther away, and Jones standing on David Korins's overliteralized and overbusy Bridge & Tunnel dive set (looking like a smoky bar from a low-budget action film), Jones's work takes on an untoward air of artistic self-indulgence. It becomes little more than an acting exercise (if an estimable one) existing solely to camouflage the surrounding show's inherent emptiness. When she plays a Russian man, who stands in the audience decrying the current state of poetry, it's clear that Jones isn't doing it because it's what's right for the show.
No, she's doing it because she can. Is that reason enough? Is there a need for her to vanish into a character who provides little special insight into the world she's created? She may be preaching tolerance for those of all different skin colors, faiths, and zip codes, but that's still territory that's been trod countless times before. This stunt isn't uniquely her; precious little here is.
In other words, even though she's finally "made it," she's still behaving as
though as she's on the outside looking in. Could that be because, as good
as she is at playing others, she's never learned how to play Sarah Jones?