In the days before nytheatre.com, I had a job for many years that required me to do a fair amount of traveling. I loved being able to spend a bit of time in a number of cities all over the United States, and I was pleasantly taken back to many of them in Jack Finnegan's new solo show City Love Song, which had its debut performance last night at 59E59 as part of their East to Edinburgh Festival.
Finnegan recounts here a 13-week trip that he took last fall, almost entirely by train, that brought him to 24 different American cities. He delivers his tale mostly while seated on a stool, which is the only thing on an otherwise bare stage. His language is vivid and often thrilling and loaded with images that feel poetic and that you may wish you were reading rather than hearing, the better to relish them. The pace of the show is quick, moving from place to place and stopping at each one just long enough to catch its flavor. It's a portrait of our country, or bits of it anyway; and it's also, perhaps even more so, a rumination on travel and on the way that life on the road distorts and distends our perception of time.
City Love Song begins and ends in New York's Penn Station; Finnegan's travel route encircles the American heartland, starting in Boston and then moving across the Midwest to Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago; and then to the West Coast: Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles; southeast to San Antonio and New Orleans; up the Mississippi River to Memphis; back to the East Coast through Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia and finally back to the Big Apple.
Finnegan nails many of the cities he's been to. There's his mention, almost in passing, of the discarded red plastic cups in the French Quarter in New Orleans; or his incisive depiction of Memphis as being the most divided city in the country ("good part/bad part/black neighborhood/white neighborhood"). More fundamentally, he often captures the American character with dazzling acuity: There's a wonderful anecdote about a fellow he met in a diner in Fargo, North Dakota, and another jolting one about a woman on a tour bus in New Orleans. The section about New Orleans and the evidence of Katrina's aftermath is undoubtedly the most potent in the show. But I loved re-visiting, with Finnegan, spots I'd been to long ago, like Boston Common or the Peabody Hotel in Memphis.
City Love Song is about an hour long, and Finnegan spends a lot of that time sitting down; I wanted him to get up more and get closer to the audience (and when he did, after seemingly hitting his stride about halfway through the piece, he was very effective). The show's ambience suggests a monologue a la Mike Daisey or Martin Dockery but it feels very written and memorized; I wonder if an outside dramaturgical or directorial hand might be useful.
I also wanted Finnegan to be more open to some of the places he went: he breezes past some cities (Atlanta, San Antonio), but I wanted him to try to discover whatever America had to offer everywhere and was disappointed that he seemed to dismiss certain destinations out of hand.
Overall, though, City Love Song is just what it says it is, a true paean to the American spirit, which at its heart is one of perpetual journeying. The folks in Edinburgh are going to get a real immersion into our country and I hope a lot of them take it in.