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theAtrainplays, vol xxii: You Can Take It

The idea behind theAtrainplays is a fiendishly simple one- Instant theatre created by six teams while traveling the entire route of the A train, from 207th Street & Broadway to Far Rockaway and back.  On Tuesday evening, June 19th, four librettists hopped on the A train at 207th Street and began writing the books for four 15-minute musicals, all set on the A train. Before each of the teams began their journey, they picked a number between 3 and 5 to set the number of characters, then they chose headshots from a blind draw to determine which actors would be in each piece.  

When the librettists reached the Far Rockaway stop, they randomly selected, through another blind draw, their collaborative lyricists, composers, directors and choreographers, who had been awaiting their arrival at a nearby McDonald's with two playwrights joining them and just beginning their journey.  Two directors met the creators of the now-finished plays at 207th Street and they all proceeded to Columbus Circle where they met the pre-selected pool of actors, deciphered their scribbles, copied the scripts and began rehearsals.  They had until show time THE NEXT DAY, Wednesday night, June 20th at 8:00PM to develop these works into six exciting new musical experiences.  Off book.  No net.

I was privileged to witness the show on June 20, at New World Stages.  It was absolutely incredible to see these very very talented people just go to town, doing what they do best, working under incredible stress; all as a benefit for the off-Broadway community.

An introductory speech by creator/producer Lawrence Feeney explained all of the above, and then, for the audience, the train was set into motion.

A simple set of a subway bench seat served for all the shows; and a house band (Alec Berlin, Jordan Perlson, Tony Ormond, and Rick Hip Flores) played all the music (which they had, of course, learned that morning).

The first Atrainplay (all the plays were named "an Atrainplay") had a book by P. Seth Bauer, music and Lyrics by Joe Iconis, direction by Mark Lonergan, and choreography by Wendy Seyb.  It was farcical and very amusing.

Performers Natalie Douglas, Tim Johnson, and Tracie Thoms played a confused family going home after meeting the daughter's new boyfriend- the parents assure her in a catchy uptempo number that there's "A Better Thing Coming", as the daughter kvetches that her mother hates her job, her father is Gay, and all of them are unsatisfied because her parents smother her.  Into their lives comes Emy Baysic, a free and easy young woman who gets them all to open up a bit, and they really let go in the second song "Lay it On Me"; a catchy "I Want" song, which is more of an "I want… I think" song, at the end of which the daughter gets a resounding kiss from the stranger, and quickly leaves with her, off to have sex and waffles.

The second Atrainplay wasn't a musical.  It was written by Shawn Nacol, and directed by David Hilder.  It was an interesting piece about activism.  Melanie Vaughn, Lisa Barnes, and Eric Michael Gillett played an anti-television activist who'd just shut down all the TVs in Times Square, the FCC G-man sent to capture her, and a rather bewildered tourist who'd gotten separated from her gun club.  The performers all had the campy spy delivery down pat, and were very entertaining.

The third Atrainplay was by Michael Lazan, music and lyrics by Gaby Alter.  This was an emotionally complex piece about a stepmother trying to buy the affection of her stepchildren, by dragging them all over New York on the day after Christmas.  Robin Skye was sweetly clueless as the stepmother, Stephanie D'Abruzzo was perfectly petulant as the snarky teen-age daughter, and Adam Flemming stole the show as the young child, who in the course of the play discovers that his father's having S-E-X and that there is no Santa (leading to a hilarious song about how stupid Santa is anyway).  It was a sweet piece, in the end.  Although "Let's go to Serendipity!" was a perfect ending line, I think the geography got a little confused, if they were coming from 42nd.

Next was a touching acoustic song called "On the Atrain", written and performed by Michael Pemberton, accompanying himself on guitar.  It was a series of vignettes of people on the A train, sweetly realized.

The fourth Atrain play had a book by Erica Silbermen, music and lyrics by Brian J. Nash, direction by Michael Duling, and choreography by Stas' Kmiec' (Staœ Kmieæ).  Ryan Duncan plays a stoner with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, who is suddenly confronted with two pieces of talking, singing trash: a Pellegrino bottle and a New York Post.  Darcie Siciliano and Cristin Hubbard were a hoot as Pellegrino and Gazette, and actually made us care (with the help of Mr. Nash's gorgeous music and clever lyrics) about their potential rebirth through recycling- if only the stoner with OCD would overcome his problems and help them.  The three performers worked together brilliantly.  Hilarious and ultimately moving, this was my personal favorite of the pieces.

The fifth Atrain play was another straight play- Written by Barbara Hammond and directed by Edie Cowan. It had Kevin Daniels and Cady Huffman in a sweet two-hander.  Ms. Huffman was an Italian tourist trying to get to JFK to head home, after leaving her boyfriend in Times Square 10 days previously when he wouldn't stop checking out the girls.  Mr. D was a businessman intent on his laptop, also heading to the airport.  The tourist tries to get the businessman to accompany her to the airport, to kiss her goodbye in front of the boyfriend.  Both performers were simply adorable in their roles.

The final Atrain play was written by Stephen O'Rourke, music and lyrics by Brandon Patton, Direction by David Brind, and Choreography by Carol Schulberg.

It began with a bickering couple who've just seen a Broadway show.  The wife (Blythe Gruda) wants to go out some more and the husband (Donovan Patton) wants to just go home because he has a headache.  Their tension builds till the entrance of two MTA Flagmen (Lawrence Feeney and Tom Sesma), who help the couple through their emotional track work.  Feeney and Sesma, (the magnificent bastard children of Kiss Me, Kate's gangsters), did a hilarious number about communication with one's partner that had the audience in stitches.

It was a pleasure to see all the actors running over to the wings to catch the other shows whenever they could- such wonderful camaraderie was a delight to see.

theAtrainplays are a stunning and impressive endeavor, and I highly recommend you catch the train next time it passes your stop.

Photos - Cady Huffman (by Ben Strothmann), Tracie Thoms (by Walter McBride/Retna Ltd.) and Ryan Duncan (by Ben Strothmann), participating performers of ATrains

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Duncan Pflaster is an award-winning playwright whose plays have been produced all over. He also has been known to direct, write music, play the ukulele, (read more...)