Familiars on a train

familiars-train
The cast of 'Tales from the Tunnel.' (Photo by Arvind Nayak.)
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If The New York Times' staid Metropolitan Diary dealt with public defecation and anonymous groping, it might read a bit like the script for Tales from the Tunnel, a collection of anecdotes about the subways put together into a play currently running off-Broadway.

Written and directed by James Valletti and Troy Diana, Tales is a collection of true stories about riding the train. The material, easily recognizable to any New Yorker, is at times moving (a menacing thug gives a homeless man the coat off his back), dramatic (an uptown socialite drops her Balenciaga bag on the tracks), or simply gross (any number of passengers drool, puke, piss, and crap on themselves and their neighbors). But most bits are funny, whether they’re about blowjobs on the platform, randy seeing-eye dogs under the seats, or pushy schoolgirls selling candy bars for their volleyball teams.

Six actors tackle dozens of roles in a rapid-fire series of vignettes, some lasting just a few seconds and none more than two or three minutes—basically the time between stops. Playing so many parts without changing costumes (everyone is in jeans and subway-themed T-shirts) means that the performers fall back on broad characterizations to distinguish one scene from the next; speech patterns, gaits, and facial expressions are over-emphasized, and the accents switch from Russian to Indian to Irish to “Brooklyn” faster than you can swipe a fare card. But the cast does an admirable job recreating the crazy mish-mash of humanity that flows through the vascular system of the city: multicultural, multiracial, of varying ages and classes and sexual orientations.

The simple set, consisting of a dozen folding chairs painted MTA yellow and orange, effectively evokes a confined subway car where people brush shoulders—and sometimes more than shoulders. Watching couples make out in the seats, or hearing young men make lewd comments to a woman traveling alone, or seeing stoners mocking everyone around them, you’ll feel like you’re riding the local after a long night out. The stories are comfortably familiar, which is both the show’s strength and its weakness; wringing something fresh out of the material falls to the actors, who largely succeed in finding laughs and even a hint of poignancy.

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Despite a handful of recurring characters—Geri Brown as a hilariously sharp-tongued booth attendant, Wilson Jermaine Heredia (Tony-winner for Rent) as a Dominican immigrant playing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” on the accordion—the show doesn’t really have a narrative arc; you could pretty much jump in and jump out at any point in the show without getting lost—kind of like riding the train. Still, Tales from the Tunnel is worth the fare, even if, just as on a real subway ride, it only rarely takes you someplace you haven't already been.

Tales from the Tunnel is showing at the 45 Bleecker Street Theatre. Tickets are $51.50. Call 212-2660-8250.