Take it from me. Every cabbie, no matter how long he’s been on the job, has a carload of stories to tell. I drove a New York City yellow cab during my senior year in college over 50 years ago and I still sometimes tell my taxi tales, like the time I gossiped naughtily to a passenger about movie star Montgomery Clift only to discover that’s who I was talking to.
|John McDonagh. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
In a day when New York cabbies seem predominantly to be immigrants from Latin America, the Middle East, South or East Asia, or Africa, McDonagh is like the kind of driver much more common when I was behind the wheel: white, locally born and raised (Middle Village, Queens), and fueled with opinions and stories. Holding his audience with his Irish charm for a just-right hour, he seems more the working-class guy next door than a polished actor. Much of his stuff is very funny, the more so because it’s grounded in reality and McDonagh tells it like he’s the lightly lubricated, garrulous, but never overbearing gent sitting next to you at the Blarney Stone.
Until he warms up he seems ever so slightly uncomfortable as he paces about, now and then glancing nervously at the floor, and spitting out vowels that would instantly qualify him for the NYPD or NYFD. If he said his cab was outside waiting for his gig to end you’d have no trouble taking him at his word. His authenticity, in fact, is a large part of his attraction.
Working on Charlie Corcoran’s relatively elaborate set of actual yellow cab components (tires, headlights, a hood, a door, and so on), and dressed in baseball cap and work clothes, he either rolls around on a platform-mounted driver’s seat—sometimes leaning out a rolled-down window—or walks about regaling us with his narrative. Pop music and WINS announcements fill M. Florian Staab’s soundtrack.
McDonagh’s obviously had to whittle down his years on the city’s asphalt for the demands of a solo performance but he doesn’t focus only on taxi stories; some anecdotes are tangentially related to his life beside the meter. One episode, for example, concerns the international fuss he inadvertently kicked up by arranging for an electronic Times Square display sponsored by a charitable organization connected to the Irish Republican Army. And there’s the segment concerning his and a buddy’s attempt to appear on a popular reality show, The Amazing Race, with its million dollar payoff, in a get-rich-quick scheme Ralph Kramden would have loved.
McDonagh’s more immediately taxi-related accounts concern the hard work, the hours, the discomforts, the problem customers (the drunks, the elderly, the ailing, the about-to-give birth, etc.), and the like. He even argues that the carriage horses in Central Park receive better treatment than the poor, overworked cabbies.
Of enormous supplemental help are videos (Chris Kateff, designer), some of which are archival records of what he’s talking about, like the time he introduced British actor and writer Stephen Fry to the members of an Italian-American “social club,” the kind of wise guys who consider Goodfellas a documentary. Or when he was interviewed by Fox News’s Neil Cavuto and responded with such ballsy anti-Republican remarks you can practically see the anchor sinking.
McDonagh mentions Uber and Lyft only in passing, and never references the green cabs that now share the streets with the iconic yellows. It’s the latter he honors, as in a poem he reads at the end, offering a deliciously bittersweet lament for how they and so many other New York things are disappearing. For example, “I know the streets of the city like the back of my hand/But people now blurt out, ‘Google maps says take a left!” The poem is titled “What Happened to My City?” Well may he ask. In John McDonagh we see the embodiment of yet another New York institution on the brink of extinction, making his words resonate that much more poignantly.
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Through November 5