We look at strangers and think we can make pretty good guesses about them, and maybe we can. We read and interpret cues of all kinds – body language, clothing, facial expressions, and foot tapping, where they've shopped, what they're reading, and where they live or work. Nowhere does this go on more intensely than on a subway train.
Standing Clear opens with five nameless passengers vocalizing those judgments, criticisms, impressions, guesses, and pop psychology that we all indulge in silently. From there the play unfolds like a flower with petals of many shapes and colors. Each of the five actors plays a batch of characters gliding in and out of subway cars represented by simple benches and bars. It's a soft, womblike fantasy subway. There's no dirt or litter, and the cast even has bare feet. The show's creators take a sharp scalpel to the small realities, both dark and bright, of everyday life.
The funny business stems from all-too-recognizable subway scenes: the confused tourists with giant backpacks, the battle for hand space on a bar, the coat caught in the door, the creepy weirdo who stands too close, and the iPodders barking disconnected syllables in time to their private music. Certain characters recur enough for us to care about them, but there's no story; rather, the play is a series of vignettes and sketches, including a few funny and surrealistic song and dance numbers.
The cast of five, including the show's highly talented creators, Ishah Janssen-Faith and Jack McGowan, swerve into and out of their multiple characters in a tour de force of that sort of thing. Their pinpoint characterizations draw us into the authors' witty dialogue and director Barbara Karger's sly staging.
Because of its lack of story, the show eventually bogs down under the weight of time, but not before setting a high standard for smart writing and delightfully clever staging. Loneliness, an unhappy marriage, the mental decline of an aging parent – the writers treat all these with art and wisdom, but after a while it becomes too much of a good thing and loses focus. This flaw weakens but does not spoil the experience.
At this point in my career I'm often tempted to not even bother praising the actors in Off Off Broadway plays anymore. The talent in this town is bottomless, and no production that's even halfway decent has to settle for actors who aren't deeply skilled. I'll just say this cast can do it all: physical comedy, pathos, subtlety, and giving us the eye (you'll see what I mean).
While many of the characters suggest sketch-comedy inspiration, and some of the jokes are standard-issue (Saturday Night Live famously spoofed the New York City subway's unintelligible public address system a generation ago), somehow that doesn't make them less funny. Janssen-Faith and McGowan aren't trying to reinvent the screeching steel subway wheel here. They're using the microcosmos of the underground train to make us look closely at ourselves – and to laugh at what we see, which may be what we need the most.