Monday, June 19, 2017

30 (2017-2018): Review: UNDERGROUND (seen June 15, 2017)

“Swipe Left/Swipe Right?”

“Mind the gap,” repeatedly says the voice on the p.a. system in the London Underground carriage that plays a key role in Underground, a British import by Isla van Tricht now in tiny Theater C at 59E59 Theaters’ Brits Off Broadway Festival. Ostensibly meant to suggest the gap between the train and the platform, it also implies the indefinable space between people that prevents them from fully connecting with one another. And, for aging theatergoers, it might also indicate the increasing distance between them and the younger generation, who live in a world of social media apps with a language all its own.

Michael Jinks. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
For the uninitiated, swipe left and swipe right are the terms used on dating apps like Tinder where swiping left means you reject the person whose profile you’re viewing, and swiping right means you accept. Some dating practitioners are likely to swipe right for this modest little play, which runs 70 minutes, is smartly acted and directed, and captures the world of lonely young urbanites dependent on their phones for the kind of romantic relationships that no longer seem to happen spontaneously. 

But the familiarity of it all, with its Millennials speaking inarticulately articulate small talk, albeit with a few decent laughs and the condiment of magic realism to spice it up a bit, may lead to others swiping right. 

James (Michael Jinks) and Claire (Bebe Sanders), in their mid-20s, live in similarly cramped, overpriced quarters in the same neighborhood, getting by on low wages at (unnamed) jobs they hate. They wake up, check their dating apps, get dressed, and go to work on the Underground where they’re often in close proximity while completely unaware of each other.

James, in his room, delivers a monologue in which he wonders which character in John Hughes’s Brat Pack films he most closely resembles. Claire offers one in which she deplores how all the optimism poured into her as she grew up didn’t prevent her unhappy fate as a member of Generation Y. Eventually, James and Claire, noting from an app how often they’ve been near one another, swipe right. Next station: drinks and cigarettes.

Much of their cute but generally unspecific conversation circles around the cautious Claire’s reluctance to consider their meeting a “date,” which she feels would be taking their relationship too far at this stage, although the somewhat shy James has no compunctions about the word. The friendly, garrulous, middle-aged bar owner, Steve (Andrew McDonald), intrudes to show James and Claire the photo album of his daughter’s recent wedding. He, too, it appears, has his own loneliness issues.
Bebe Sanders, Andrew McDonald, Michael Jinks. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
On their Underground ride home in the wee hours on the Northern Line, the train stalls between stations; their phones are dead, forcing the mildly snarky Claire and the uncertain James to get to know each other better, difficult as it is at first to make conversation under these circumstances. Their mating talk turns to dreams and nightmares before intimacy beckons, as does sleep.

James is particularly jumpy, afraid he’s going to die there, perhaps from lack of oxygen. Having been trapped on a stalled A train recently, I know the feeling, albeit there was little romantic about my fellow passengers or the desperation I experienced about getting to my destination.

The only other passenger is a sleeping man, with a sign reading “Wake me up at Clapham North.” When they eventually wake him, it’s Steve, although he denies being the Steve they think he is. It’s a distractingly puzzling, surrealistic touch but no more so than the strange, poetic comments that are heard from a woman’s voice over the p.a. system, which periodically interrupts, in a man’s voice, to inform the passengers about the delay.
Michael Jinks, Bebe Sanders. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
A final scene, set several months later, shows the aftermath of Claire and James’s fateful night out. It seems to have been written to satisfy the conventional boy meets girl formula but, based on what we’ve seen earlier, isn’t fully convincing.

Kate Tiernan directs the play alley-style in a space between two banks of seats, the only furniture being two rows of wooden benches facing each other like seats in a subway car, but used for other purposes, like beds or tables, as well. (The London production was staged in a vault beneath the actual train tracks, where the trains overhead could be heard rumbling by.) This minimalist approach is nearly the same as that currently used in Theater B at 59E59 for My Eyes Went Dark, except that here the few props (phones, mostly) aren’t mimed. In this bare environment, lighting (no one is credited for sets or lights) and sound (well designed by Jude Obermüller) are crucial.

Before you enter, a house manager asks if you’re single, in a relationship, or it’s complicated; depending on your answer you get a colored dot to stick on your clothes. Nothing comes of this, however, and you may not remember you have this dot on your shirt, blouse, or jacket until you get home. Like some of Underground it could use a bit of explanation.


59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through July 2