East 10th Street: Self Portrait with Empty House

Edgar Oliver is one of the cult figures of downtown / alternative / indie theater; has been for a couple of decades. If you've seen him in his own plays at La MaMa, or telling stories at The Moth, or acting for Axis Company, then probably all I have to tell you about East 10th Street is that it's an hour of Oliver telling strange and creepy tales in his unique style about the now-virtually-abandoned boarding house where he's lived for more than 30 years, and you will hasten to see it. If Edgar Oliver is new to you, know that he's a distinctive and unusual artist whose guileless and charismatic weirdness is pretty irresistible.

He's also a superb craftsman; one of my companions at the show remarked afterward how thrilling it is to see someone break the rules of solo performance so conclusively and effectively. He's a spellbinder, is Edgar Oliver.

The piece is simplicity itself: a bare stage, with the sparest of lighting (designed by David Zeffren) and only the occasional sound effect (by Steve Fontaine). Oliver, garbed all in black, steps into a pinpoint of light and starts to talk to us. His subject, as the show's title suggests, is the house in the East Village where he lives. It is empty now, he says, except for himself. But when he moved in, in the mid-1970s, it was full—full of the oddest, quirkiest collection of misfits and misanthropes this side of a Charles Addams cartoon or an Edmund Gorey story. Much of East 10th Street is given over to his recollections of these neighbors.

There's Frances, the very old woman who was once wet nurse to the building's owner, who spends most of her days washing towels in the bathroom. There's Donald, who shares the second floor with Frances, and whose sole desire is to scare her to death. (I'll let Oliver tell you himself what concoction Donald lives on.)

Also, there's Freddie, "the midget cabalist," four feet tall; and Edwin, who Oliver and his sister Helen decide is a Nazi fugitive—both of these men, Oliver assures us, were earnestly engaged in trying to kill them. Helen lived with Oliver for a time, so we meet her as well, along with Mr. Supter, the guy who rented Oliver his room in the first place, conducting the transaction while clothed only in a bath towel. (Supter is not his real name; again, I leave it to Oliver to tell you the story behind that.)

None of the denizens of the boarding house comes to a happy end, I'm afraid, and their exits from the building are recorded here with a mix of hushed reverence and ghoulish glee. Macabre is definitely the governing mood here, until things turn serious and very personal, as Oliver unfolds an anecdote about his own unrequited love for another actor. Somehow this tale is of a piece with all that precedes it. East 10th Street is finally an exploration of extreme, eccentric people who seek but fail to connect with anyone. Does the loneliness come before or after the off-kilter world view?

Directed with commanding and unwavering focus by Randy Sharp, the play makes for a taut and utterly involving hour. It is very funny, and also oddly touching and affecting. It makes us hungry for more chapters of the life of this self-invented artist, one of the authentic originals who makes New York's indie theater the extraordinary and unparalleled world that it is.