The Man Under

Paul Bomba is a fine actor (I first got to know his work a bit more than a year ago at Metropolitan Playhouse in their production of From Rags to Riches). In The Man Under, his first produced full-length work as a playwright, Bomba portrays Jeff, a young man who is struggling to recover from a significant loss. When we first meet him, Jeff is standing too close to the tracks at the City Hall subway station, fighting an impulse to jump. Over the course of the play's 75 minutes, we get to know more about Jeff's sadness and history; and we also see him experience something like great joy as he gets to know, and starts to fall in love with, a young woman named Lisa who also sometimes feels like she wants to fall onto those tracks.

It makes for an unconventional love story, and it works more because Bomba the actor is so intensely likable and relatable than because Bomba the playwright has written a fully satisfying script. I'm not even sure it's correct to call The Man Under a love story, although it depicts not only Jeff and Lisa's off-kilter romance but also another (tentative) one between Jeff's roommate Martin and their neighbor Jennifer. The play, finally, feels more to me like a collective character study of a group of people who are having terrible trouble getting what they need, because they can't figure out what they want, because they all feel, for different reasons, like they aren't deserving of happiness. That they're able to help each other somewhat makes the play lighter than it might otherwise be; but although there are comic moments (and others that generate nervous laughter for their discomfiture), this is by no means a comedy.

Much of the play takes place in subway tunnels, where Lisa apparently spends a good deal of her time; she introduces Jeff to her underground world, but in doing so she pulls him away from whatever grounding he once may have had. The rest of the play unfolds in Jeff and Martin's apartment, which is a refuge for Jennifer, who is trying (not very hard) to disengage herself from a lingering dysfunctional relationship.

The two women in this play are ultimately the aggressors, while the men are both more pensive and reactive; I think that's interesting and unusual. But we don't really get to know any of the characters as well as I would have wished; the stakes are more assumed than delineated. The direction, by Benjamin Kamine, seems hampered by the small size of the space; Kamine has provisioned 59e59's Theater C with a raised stage in a traditional proscenium-style arrangement, but the two locales of the piece don't fit comfortably within it, in part because they're both presented so naturalistically that when Jeff transitions from one to the other it feels jarring rather than magical.

The subway tunnels are beautifully evoked, though, via projections that are truly transformative. It's not clear whether the set designer Julia Noulin-Merat or the lighting designer Charlie Forster is responsible; kudos to whomever.

Bomba's three co-stars are Curran Connor (Martin), Veronique Ory (Jennifer), and Briana Pozner (Lisa); though all fine, none managed to earn my sympathy the way that Bomba did; he's an actor who makes his characters easy to root for. I'll be interested to see him again on stage.