Tales from the Tunnel
nytheatre.com review by Stephen Kaliski
July 11, 2010
It might sound like an accusation of elitism to say that a certain play would fail anywhere but in New York, but in the case of Troy Diana and James Valletti's Tales from the Tunnel, such an observation comes only with the greatest admiration.
In this simply staged but intricately assembled ode to the NYC subway system, writer-directors Diana and Valletti evoke the interview-based collage style of Anna Deavere Smith and The Civilians to piece together a medley of stories from the homeless to the filthy rich. In doing so, the creators have wisely identified the one collective experience that all New Yorkers share: a gritty knowledge of our ever-eccentric mass transit system.
Sure, the subway is an easy target for shock and awe, but the scope of Diana and Valletti's reporting doesn't simply settle for the ridiculous. Instead, these men have concocted a profile of such thorough compassion that the audience can't help but appreciate the subway as the most nuanced melting pot in the world.
The key to this interview-based drama is that each subject must be lived rather than told, and here the writers are helped by a sterling cast of six, led but not monopolized by a magnificent performance from Tony Award winner Wilson Jermaine Heredia (Angel from Rent). Heredia and his co-stars switch so seamlessly between Latino musicians and train conductors, Upper East Side mothers and angsty hipster punks, that the effect is as dizzyingly textured as the rush hour commute itself.
Tales from the Tunnel begins in purely comedic territory. We're in the land of crazy sex stories and even crazier smell stories, of genitalia and excrement flopping around places it has no business flopping. Anywhere else in the world, this stuff might seem repulsively unbelievable, but an audience of seasoned New Yorkers howls over it as if they were hearing a story about a loopy uncle. We've all been down there. We know the all-inclusive it happens all the time.
After confidently hooking us, the play gently moves in more serious directions. We change from making fun of the homeless man to hearing the story from the homeless man himself. Vayu O'Donnell, a young Liev Schreiber with just as much understated ease, delivers a desolate and haunting monologue from a normal-guy-turned-crack-addict that virtually punches us in the face for laughing at such a person in the first place. Likewise, Farah Bala has a standout moment of her own as an Indian immigrant who experiences a racist assault in Brooklyn.
In the rush of laughter, the galvanizing shocks from such serious moments are completely exhilarating. When we inevitably cover 9/11, the entire team deserves another round of applause for making a well-lived horror seem so immediate once again.
From the obviously comedic to the deathly serious, Tales from the Tunnel exhibits a sophistication of storytelling that propels us through the entire ride. We're not just watching a series of school reports. Long monologues are relieved by playful vignettes. Characters come back to finish their unexpected arcs. Anastasia Amelchacova's flexible set and Paul Miller's lights carry us between crowded cars and empty ones, late-night platforms with naive girls and MTA booths with feisty employees.
During it all, the catalogue of observation becomes more and more impressive. Diana and Valletti cover every single quirk imaginable, from those incomprehensible emergency instructions to the oddly endearing behaviors of our most tenacious co-habitants, the subway rats.
Tales from the Tunnel is, quite simply, a play for New York. Why would it want to succeed anywhere else? Its deep respect, understanding, and love for its community will make it an instant hit exactly where it belongs.