The effect of being shoehorned into your seat at the Helen Hayes Theater is not unlike taking your preferred form of public transportation, whether subway, bus, or train. Legroom is in short supply, but elbow contact abounds. Still, there is no better way to make the trip through this Bridge & Tunnel than being crammed in shoulder to shoulder with people you've never seen before, and very likely will never see again. A much-hyped, much-celebrated success at Off-Broadway's Culture Project last year, Sarah Jones's solo tour de force has survived its uptown trek intact, continuing its celebration of the spectacular diversity that defines New York City. Written and performed by Jones, who persuasively inhabits more than a dozen different characters, Bridge & Tunnel features personalities that traditional Broadway audiences have all too rarely seen—voices that are accented, transplanted, and grappling for definition.
As a framework for her characters, Jones wisely chooses a form of theater historically tied to the world of downtown performance—the poetry slam. As introduced by good-natured host and comedian-wannabe Mohammed Ali (definitely not the boxer), a series of poets (and would-be poets) step up to the microphone at the Bridge & Tunnel Café in Queens. Undeterred by the exposed pipes and brick walls of David Korins's carefully demolished set, they speak not only because they want to but because they need to.
Using her powers of observation as much as her acting training, Jones worked for years to create these characters, and the results are disarmingly authentic. Clad simply in black, Jones layers on a variety of accessories (jackets, hats, glasses) to distinguish between characters, but such surface differentiation is hardly necessary given the indelible nuances she brings to each performance. No one actress should be able to embody such a variety of ages, accents, experiences, and postures, but such is Jones's miraculous range.
Jones is no showoff, though, and she gives herself over to her performances so completely you almost forget she is there. Among the many standout characters are Bao, a young Vietnamese boy who uses poetry as "a slur-proof shield"; Mrs. Ling, a Chinese mother coming to terms with her daughter's unconventional romantic choices; Juan Jose, a wheelchair-bound Hispanic man who shares the story of his lost love and destroyed body; a petrified 11-year-old Dominican student from the Bronx whose poem, "I Don't Want to Grow Up," is an affecting spin on the perils of adulthood; and, of course, the affable Mohammed, who returns intermittently to "bring the next poet coming." And while one character near the end, a Russian Jew from Brooklyn named Boris, seems less developed than the rest, his presence still enriches the broad landscape of experiences represented here.
While some of the performers do more talking than poeticizing, they all reveal their experiences with the ever-elusive American Dream. Whether confronting prejudiced real estate brokers, unfaithful lovers, or reductive stereotypes, these characters are hungry for freedom, acceptance, and recognition. As a conduit for these characters, Jones links them at once to herself and to each other. In the absence of a specific shared heritage, she underlines their common humanity.
Meryl Streep, a champion (and sometimes producer) of the show since its downtown days, has praised Jones for both her authenticity and her gift for "compassionate storytelling." Indeed, it is Jones's tremendous empathy that allows her to connect to her characters so seamlessly. With her open, straightforward style, she extends this compassion to the audience as well, creating a compelling transaction between character and audience.
This audience involvement is a staple of many poetry readings, and Tony Taccone's dynamic direction ensures that the audience is an integral part of the show. Lighting designer Howell Binkley has strung multicolored lights far out into the audience, connecting us to the stage and its player(s). Each character seems to speak directly to us, inviting audience participation, response, connection, and, perhaps most profoundly, empathy.
At one moment, Mohammed quips that he might be "hiding the limericks of mass destruction," but his joke only undermines the very real threat to minorities present in this country. While it's tempting to be swept away by the entertainment, the show encourages a vital political act—the imperative, instructive practice of listening to a collage of voices and experiences.
If Bridge & Tunnel leaves you wanting more of these lively personalities (as it undoubtedly will), count yourself lucky. Whether it's on the crowded streets, in your neighborhood, or on the subway, there are important stories to tell and be told, Jones contends. Just follow the trail back to Bridge & Tunnel's origins in downtown theater. Or, better yet, simply listen to the person crammed into the seat beside you.