nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 1, 2005
For nearly four years now, the folks behind the Atrainplays have been putting together delightfully entertaining evenings of new short plays and musicals, all created more or less on the fly in a single day's time, starting with a journey along the full length of the New York subway's A line, from 207th Street to Far Rockaway. That's where the playwright does his or her thing, armed only with a bundle of headshots (of the actors who will be in their play) and the knowledge that their show must take place on the same A train they're riding on. 90 minutes later, the writer meets the director, and then these randomly selected collaborators get back on the subway and ride as far as 59th Street to meet up with the designated actors.
The next night, about 20 hours after the ink is dry, the play gets its premiere.
Consistency suggests more than luck is at work here: Lawrence Feeney (who had the original idea), Michael Pemberton, Andrew Donovan, Craig Pospisil, and David Riedy—the five "founders" of the Atrainplays—clearly have noses for the rare combination of talent, nerve, imagination, humility, and adrenalin that makes this process come together so successfully. And perhaps a touch of alchemy, as well.
They certainly deserve to pat themselves on the backs as they do in the two-week Atrain(re)plays, a retrospective/compendium of the best of some 96 original plays and musicals produced since the project started in May 2002. That's because their best is very, very good: never less than merrily diverting, often terrific, and sometimes downright miraculous. The nature of the process means that nothing here is deep, subtle, or richly nuanced; but for sheer high-spirited, high-energy hijinks, there are few short play anthology shows—few shows period—that can touch this one.
I caught Program 1, which runs March 1 - 6 (an entirely different bill, the aptly named Program 2, runs the following week). The pieces run the gamut from "Surfin Turf," a cheerfully tasteless, darkly comic musical about subway surfing (written by Shawn Nacol with lyrics by Simone Wells and music by Lanny Meyers), to "A Short Distance Correctly," a sweet, zany fantasy by Michael Rhodes in which a middle-aged man's musings about the pretty young woman he always holds the car door open for take on a surprising life of their own, to David Riedy's thoughtful, comic parable about communication, loneliness, and connection, "Everything You Want." Renee Flemings and Jeremy Schonfeld's collaboration, "Heart & Home," features a bickering young couple—he's a street entertainer, she's recovering from same, trying to make a living and find a decent apartment within the boundaries of the system—who are taught a refreshing life lesson by an older couple, a magician and a down-on-her-luck actress who are working the same subway car. Another musical, "The Light in Me," by Erica Silberman and Cornell Womack, starts with a trio of frustrated yoga students and then takes a slightly surreal turn with the arrival of their crazy Irish instructor Niall. Yet another, Craig Pospisil and Joanna Parsons's "Wedding Train," puts a runaway bride on the train, where she bumps into—of all people—her former boyfriend.
My favorites among the nine items on the agenda—yours may well be different, of course—are "Howard Hopped the A-Train" by Anthony P. Pennino, a very funny and surprisingly insightful comedy in which a construction worker who has just been laid off meets up with someone who very much appears to be Jesus Christ; "Free," another Pospisil piece, in which a young man in the throes of a panic attack gets a sudden inspiration to take off all his clothes on an empty subway car; and "City of Freaks," by Riedy, Marcy Heisler & Zina Goldrich, far and away the most well-realized work here, a musical about a tourist from Minnesota and the three typically nutty New Yorkers he meets on his first ride on the A train—a miracle of brilliant construction whose witty book and toe-tapping tunes are better than just about anything currently showing on Broadway.
The nine shows are directed and choreographed by a host of talented folks, with the most impressive work coming from Mark Lonergan ("Free"), Edie Cowan ("Surfin Turf" and "City of Freaks"), and Christopher Windom (the choreography for "City of Freaks"). Some 21 actors bring the plays to life, many in multiple roles: all are terrific, but permit me to single out, as especially effective and memorable, Christine Pedi (as the homeless ex-actress in "Heart & Home"), Scott Wood (as the panicky young man in "Free"), Natalie Douglas (as one of the kooky New Yorkers in "City of Freaks" and one of the yoga students in "The Light in Me"), Pierre-Marc Diennet and Ron Stetson (as Jesus and Howard in "Howard Hopped the A-Train"), Donovan Patton (as the exuberant tourist in "City of Freaks"), and David Hilder (as one of the oddball surfers in "Surfin' Turf").
Nine is probably one or two more shows than strictly necessary; the evening felt a little long by its end. But that is in no way a reflection on the astonishing excellence of all the work on view here. With the Atrainplays, Feeney and his colleagues have found a formula for sheer joyous fun. This celebration of the best of their inspiration is worth the trip, whatever subway line you take to get to it.