A taxi driver once told me that to get a feel for New York City, there is nothing better than taking a cab. Unlike riding the subway, a yellow cab puts the lives of eight million people on safe display through the windows, as you look out on the street corners and shop fronts. In La MaMa's studious production of The Lunatics' Ball, we get a sense of the city by looking into cabs instead. Adapted from playwright/poet Claudia Menza's book of the same name, Lunatics' Ball explores the aspect of New York life most familiar to permanent residents: coming and going. Nowhere else in the world do people fret so much about going a mile and a half to the east or six miles south. For this reason, New York City has developed its legendary transit system, which, let's be honest, doesn't always make commuting easier. Menza takes a cue from this unique phenomenon and uses mass transit as a metaphor for the city as a whole.
The play follows cabbie Mario, played with genuine NYC hauteur by Paul Albe, and the many strains of New Yorkers who occupy his backseat. Transvestites, voyeurs, and cowboys seek advice from our shrink in a box, and their peculiar stories also beg the question: Are there any normal people in New York City?
The answer, thankfully, is no. In La MaMa's thoughtful presentation, the wonderful cast fruitfully embodies a long list of New Yorkers, each with a unique reason for coming to the city and even some with pretty good reasons for leaving. Most of these characters, like all New Yorkers, are concerned only with getting to where they have to be in the next 10 minutes—not the next 10 years. Menza and director Harold Dean James play these characters against one another very well, and it's hysterical to see figures like Daniel Clymer's waiter, Josh, get service industry advice from the surly cabbie. "It's all about power," Albe's Mario growls. "For one hour, they got it and you don't."
The urban power struggle comes to a head—in, perhaps, the best single enactment of wish fulfillment I've ever seen—when Joy Kelly's sublimely courageous Chantal stands up to Lynn Eldredge's quixotic Fleur, the former being a past-her-prime lounge singer and the latter a gun-waving subway crazy. This scene climactically exposes the very real frustrations created when the hard-working middle-class commuter shares subway cars and park benches with the deranged and homeless. The scene is played masterfully and unapologetically by Kelly and Eldredge, who each bring humanity to what might have been a stale encounter in the hands of two lesser talents.
Stella Venner also deserves a special commendation—her character is a "listener," and almost a proxy for Menza herself, who absorbs the follies and triumphs of these city folk while never being allowed to comment on it. Venner's presence usually gave the audience and the other actors an alternative point of focus, which went a long way toward breaking up the long sequence of monologues.
Unfortunately, nothing else in the play lives up to that one exchange between Fleur and Chantal, at least in terms of energy and pathos. Two stellar actors notwithstanding, the scene between Clymer's "aw shucks" ranch hand Jimbo and Cezar Williams's vivacious transsexual LaDenise plays exactly like what it is: a random pairing of contrasting stereotypes for comedic effect. Likewise, Clymer's final scene as a burnt-out actor, Kevin, expresses well the difficulty of "making it in the big city" but takes far too many twists to reach its inevitable conclusion. Too often, Menza's characters revert to a dense, heightened language that isn't usually appropriate and is never as convincing as when her more developed characters, like Mario, talk.
The scenic and video design, also by James, is adequate if not a little underwhelming. The effect of using two TV monitors to simulate the cab's windows is effective, until the second and third and fourth time I saw the bright green truck, when the video looped. Otherwise the design elements were all a considerable success. The alternate video for the cab ride to the airport was an especially nice touch.
The characters in Lunatics' Ball are, as cartoonist Scott McCloud says, profoundly isolated in a city of millions—idle chatter is how they navigate the boulevards of life. I think, like Menza, I finally understand what that cabbie meant by what he said to me. It wasn't that I would get a sense of the city by riding in a cab; it was that he got a sense of the city by driving one. The city, in Menza's estimation, is its people. This play is like the people, too: at times long-winded, rough, and eccentric, but, most important, heartfelt.