The 13th annual Brits Off Broadway festival has been chugging along at the 59E59 Theaters since early April. They have given us some gems this spring, notably, Gary Owens’ Iphigenia in Splott and Jon Brittain’s Rotterdam. But now, with the arrival of Underground and its thin script by the early career playwright Isla van Tricht, the festival concludes not with a bang, but with two whiners.
It is a little hard to care about our would-be lovebirds James (Michael Jinks) and Claire (Bebe Sanders). Part of it is just bad timing, I suppose. These are not the best of days for a play about two working class Londoners who care only about themselves. Nor do they meet cute. Rather, they hesitantly meet through a dating app. They smoke, they drink, they flirt awkwardly and the relationship goes nowhere fast, literally, as most of the inaction takes place on a stalled subway train (the tube, as it’s called across the pond). Their brokenness and lack of intimacy is the playwright’s point, with both of them freaking out just a bit whenever a tender or passionate moment nearly transpires. As Claire ponders early in the play, “Am I alone here? This is who we are. Isn’t this the fate of Generation Y?” The three young women next to me chuckled softly in appreciation of that comment. I perhaps was not the only older audience member beginning to wonder what new explorations of shallow loneliness Gen Y playwrights will bring to the table in the coming years. Selfies, indeed.
Ms. van Tricht is not beyond dropping James and Claire into surreal circumstances. Their bartender, Steve (veteran UK actor, Andrew McDonald), a mature family man, also turns up as a sort of homeless doppelganger on their train. Meanwhile, the train’s automated announcer gets all deep and interpersonal, milking the phrase “Mind the gap,” for all its worth, when not teasing us and our two protagonists that depth of meaning is so close and yet so far away, “Something vital has struck here and split the solid banality of routine in two,” insists the voice. If only.
Without benefit of a credited scenic designer, director Kate Tiernan (who is primarily a visual and performance artist and playwright) places her actors on a narrow strip of a stage lined with benches, to simulate the tube. The audience is seated on both sides. As a result, one or both of the actors have their backs turned to half of the audience for long stretches, or else one actor will cheat an awkward turn to reward us with at least being able to see half a facial expression. That said, both Mr. Jinks and Ms. Sanders give solid, believable performances. There is a definite chemistry between them, they are just denied the chance to combust.
Underground – By Isla van Tricht; Directed by Kate Tiernan.
WITH: Michael Jinks (James), Andrew McDonald (Steve/Man ) and Bebe Sanders (Claire).
Music and Sound Design by Jude Obermuller, Production Stage Manager: Whitney M. Keeter. Produced by Shrapnel Theatre and Hartshorn – Hook Foundation for Brits Off Broadway, at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street (212) 279‐4200, www.59e59.org. Through Sunday, July 2. Running time: 70 minutes.