nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 26, 2005
If you've ever wondered why they have those divider-things between the front and back seats of New York City taxi cabs, see Hell Cab. You'll discover about two dozen reasons—as many, pretty much, as there are scenes in this moody dramedy by Will Kern.
Kern spent time as a cabbie in Chicago, where Hell Cab takes place (and where, apparently, the innovation of divider-things has not yet taken hold). For diehard New Yorkers, the play's reality is a little jarring: Why are these passengers touching the cabbie all the time? Why are these passengers talking to the cabbie all the time? Why are the passengers always calling the driver "Driver" (as opposed to "Hey, You" or, more likely, nothing at all)?
Ok, let me backtrack a bit. Hell Cab depicts a VERY eventful day in the life of our hero, a nameless cabbie who has been on the job just a few months. He's a loner and he's a little sad, but he's never a pathetic wastrel like the Harry Chapin cabbie; neither is he, as far as we can tell, a biding-my-time-until-I-get-a-break cabbie a la the TV series Taxi. He's just a compassionate, striving guy in a job that he probably both feels and thinks too much to be really good at; it'll either drive him crazy or turn him cold and hard. Nic Mevoli, onstage for virtually the entire play, is superb as the cabbie, creating a very human, very sympathetic character whose travails authentically engage us.
Said travails are a bit over-the-top, however; I wasn't finally sure whether Kern intended to crack us up with an America's Kookiest Cab Rides show, or to tear us up with America's Most Harrowing Cab Rides. Hell Cab offers some of both, which means that its reality—even getting past the New York/Chicago thing—is hard to pin down. Is this really one hellacious day on the job? Are we really supposed to believe that passengers behave this weird all the time? Does a cabbie really deal with a passenger coming on sexually to him, a close shave in a scary neighborhood, and a rape victim, all in the course of a single day? The play starts intense and out-there, and just never lets up.
The silly vignettes—for Hell Cab is all vignettes, maybe two dozen of them, strung one after the other, each depicting a particular "fare"—are fun for the actors: Adam Purvis, for example, is funny as a man who communicates using a sock puppet, and Reagan Wilson is on-target as a Mother-to-Be whose baby looks like it might just pop out in the taxi.
The more serious stories, most notably one involving a receptionist who is the unwitting victim of a very callous would-be boyfriend, are often compelling. Kern is interested in racism, and he deals more than once with the difficulty in getting cab drivers (white and black) to pick up African Americans and to journey to predominantly African American neighborhoods. This gives Hell Cab some weight. I was concerned, though, by what felt to me like a misogynistic streak in the play: the women are all presented here as either victims or manipulators. I was also somewhat troubled by Kern's tendency to dwell on the worst aspects of human nature in his play; except for a final scene (which feels contrived and tacked-on to provide a suitably uplifting ending), all of the vignettes depict men and women at their basest—drunk, stoned, on-the-make, deceiving, betraying, fighting.
Rising Sun Performance Company, nevertheless, does well by the piece, with a nifty set that really looks and feels like a taxi cab (designed by Larua Jellinek) and appropriate costumes, sound, and lighting design. Director Akia keeps the pace brisk and navigates fourteen actors through at least twice that many roles seamlessly and effectively. All in all, it's a rowdy, generally diverting evening. And it will remind you to be extra-special nice and considerate the next time you venture into a cab.