BOTTOM LINE: Starting from the idea that "You'll never believe what happened on the subway," Tales From the Tunnel covers the amazing breadth of the New York subway experience. Unfortunately, it all too often sacrifices the depth that makes for truly engaging theatre.
Anyone who has lived in New York City for any length of time has a collection of subway stories. Someone sitting next to you has fallen asleep on your shoulder, or picked a fight with you, or taken up too much space with their stroller. You've seen and/or smelt poop/pee/vomit. You've been stuck underground and been late for work. You've gotten to know rats more than you would have liked. Or else you have seen something beautiful, or hilarious, or touching. Maybe you even met a friend or lover. Tales From the Tunnel, a play that debuted at last year's Fringe Festival and is now running off-Broadway, presents a collection of staged subway stories, all taken from interviews with subway workers and riders.
The stories range from brief jokes and observations to more extended reflections on subjects like racial prejudice and becoming homeless. Many of these stories will be recognizable to those of us who spend way more time than we'd like underground. If they haven't happened to us, we may have heard friends tell similar stories. Since the NYC subway is so incredibly iconic and prevalent in the lives of most New Yorkers, even those stories that manage to surprise or shock are also immediately familiar. And this is perhaps Tales From the Tunnel's greatest strength, and also its biggest flaw. For those of us with our own subway stories (I myself am thinking of a friend's super embarrassing experience riding to work one morning), we ultimately need something more. And this is the thing that Tales From the Tunnel may not provide.
To be fair, there is a lot here, and most of the stories are fairly brief. And certainly, this show encapsulates what it is to ride the subway. We don't experience the subway as a drama with rising action, climax, and denouement, but as a series of random occurrences, often mundane, and occasionally bizarre or hilarious or erotic or disgusting. When we tell a subway story, it rarely takes more than a few lines. In the place of complex character development, our subway stories - the ones we tell to friends - simply have "people": the person who played their music too loud or got caught in the doorway or gave us directions. But unfortunately, while this kind of storytelling works well to release tension after a miserable subway ride, it doesn't make for riveting theatre.
At times, Tales From the Tunnel is extremely engaging. I laughed out loud more than once, and often smiled in recognition at the scene in front of me. Six actors play a seemingly countless array of characters, often blurring the boundaries of race and gender, using little more than a small costume element or accent. Some characters – including a wealthy Upper East Side woman who is forced to ride the subway on occasion (Farah Bala), a subway employee who sees everything from her booth (Geri Brown), a lively busker (Wilson Jermaine Heredia – Tony-winner for Rent ), and a flamboyant and flirtatious gay man (Brandon Jones) – make multiple appearances. I found that the best moments were the extended monologues; one of the most affecting was Vayu O'Donnell's moving performance of a man who grew up riding the subway and now lives in the tunnels.
Unfortunately, Tales From the Tunnel doesn't have enough of these longer stories, so most of the characters are much less developed. The woman waiting in vain for a train could be anyone. We've all been there, but so what? Put another way, the show sacrifices depth for breadth. Apparently, co-creator James Valletti got several of these stories by talking to his father, a man who worked for the MTA for 27 years. But this information isn't in the show; instead, we have a nameless man who tells a story about the "Rat King." Had I known that Valletti Sr. was the real-life "Rat King," and had I perhaps spent more time with this man, I might have experienced his story, and by extension the show, differently. But after awhile, the constant shift from one brief story to another grew repetitive. In fact, the large number of short stories is what makes Tales From the Tunnel feel so long.
However, I wonder if non-straphangers might find more enjoyment in Tales From the Tunnel. After all, pretty much every conceivable subway experience is represented. If you don't ride the subway on a daily basis, these stories will be new to you. And Tales From the Tunnel shows how the subway is really a microcosm of the city itself; this is also a show about New York City (yes, there is a segment about September 11th. How could there not be?) So Tales From the Tunnel might also have great appeal for those who are new to New York. Which is to say, if you aren't aware that New York is one of the greatest cities in the world, or that the subway system here is simultaneously awful and amazing and hilarious and terrifying and gross and enticing and convenient and annoying and so much more, then by all means, see Tales From the Tunnel. And since the theatre is steps away from the 6 train (and close to other lines as well), make sure you ride the subway there.
(Tales From the Tunnel plays at the Theatres at 45 Bleecker Street. Tickets are currently on sale through October 10th. Performances are Saturdays at 4pm and Sundays at 7pm. Beginning September 6th there will also be performances on Tuesdays at 9:30pm.Tickets are $51.50 and can be purchased at telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200. For more information visit talesfromthetunnel.com.)