Theater: Underground Theater

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Every day on the subway we pretend to read our newspapers and books, or we bob happily to our iPods. But as we barrel on to our destination, we secretly observe our fellow passengers: We wonder about them, love them, hate them, all while keeping a straight face. No one ever really tires of subway stories—telling them or hearing about them—and Overheard in New York and Craigslist Rants repeatedly feature stories of people reaching out to strangers with whom they made eye contact, or publicly admonishing passengers who cut their toenails on their way home.

The Coffee Cup theater collective focused on the daily quirks of the MTA experience in order to create their comedy, Standing Clear. Written by Ishah Janssen-Faith and Jack McGowan (also both performers in the piece) and directed by Barbara Karger, the play was crafted from material the performers recorded on the theater company’s blog (

Throughout the play, we hear passengers’ internal monologues as they scan their companions and scrutinize them, judge them, creating stories and making assumptions. “When I look at you, all I see is dirty jeans. I mean real dirt on your jeans,” one says. “When I look at you, I wonder. Man or woman? Are those your real cheekbones?” We see a girl struggle to get along with her crazy mother (because every New Yorker seems to have a crazy mother) on the phone and pretend to lose service underground. Another couple bickers about their daughter’s violin recitals—while the other people ignore their fighting. Characters lose themselves, forgetting their surroundings and scratching their groins, breaking into dance to the music of their iPods only to realize too late that no one else can hear the music.

Five performers jump in and out of a variety of characters: There’s a hermit-like old woman who compulsively talks to strangers delivering unwanted advice, a man in a hood with a facial tick who stands uncomfortably close to people, a successful but sleepless business woman who nods off while filing her nails, a young girl who falls in love with the drummer on his iPod, a man suffering constant professional crises and many others. Endless common and poignantly relatable subway moments ensue, always to the beat of an assorted playlist, as if the audience has an iPod of its own.

In fact, the ubiquitous music machines are featured prominently throughout the play, calling attention to just how deeply in our bubbles we contain ourselves, living inside the fantasized movie of our lives, melancholy or exuberant, with the soundtrack at our fingertips. Not only does a man completely lose himself and begin to sing and dance around the pole, but the whole cast breaks into song together and come to the front of the stage to dance in corny ’50s-style musical pieces; and while incredibly entertaining, these numbers seemed to break a few degrees too far from the original premise.

The performance’s strengths lie in the superb acting, which makes the subway scenes realistic and easy for the audience to relate to. Our daily commutes and our voyeuristic web strolls play out in front of us with color and beautiful attention to detail. The average train ride, however, doesn’t usually last longer than an hour, while Standing Clear keeps us rooted to our hot stuffy seats while they shuffle about long enough to make us feel as if we missed our stop—or that they forgot about theirs.

Through June 21. The Access Theater, 380 Broadway, 4th flr., (at White St.), 212-868-4444; Thurs.-Sat. 8; Sun. 3 & 7, $15/$20.

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