Life in New York City residences has long provided fruitful source material for storytelling, from the illustrated upper crust of the Eloise books to the friends Friends. In his new play, East 10th Street: Self Portrait with an Empty House, presented by the Axis Company, avant-garde theater icon Edgar Oliver tells his own story of the decades he’s spent in his East 10th Street building. With a signature performance style far removed from the world of laugh tracks or the pages of picture books, Oliver’s understated jokes and kooky presence make for a charming evening of solo-performance. Oliver began his career in the New York theater scene as a writer and performer two decades ago. Downtown Manhattan has transformed much of itself since Oliver first moved into the building on East 10th, but anyone looking to reminisce about the good old days of Off Off Broadway while bemoaning the gentrification of lower Manhattan and chastising the contemporary art world should look elsewhere; this is not that sort of play. In his refusal to prize the bygone days of the avant-garde over today’s experimental work, Oliver locates himself as someone continually at the forefront of the downtown art scene.
Simultaneously warm and detached, isolating and communal, heartwarming and heartbreaking, the production masterfully captures the idiosyncrasies that characterize city living. East 10th Street is not so much about changing times as it is about a changing cast of characters. Once populated by a host of outlandish individuals, the building where Oliver has spent his New York career is now home to him alone. That begs the question: what happens when the people who make up your home disappear from it?
At no point in time, however, did the residents of East 10th Street make up a genial rooming house family. A remarkable number of residents appear to have been mentally ill, and Oliver delights in slow, bemused descriptions of each. East 10th is a world where the landlord’s ancient wet nurse spends every day laundering rags in the washroom, while other residents avoid it completely; many of them suspect one another of plotting each other’s murders, to the annoyance of the superintendant, who has his hands full dealing with ghosts. Oliver’s descriptions of the wonderland-like home fraught with such ridiculous conflict and general craziness render his unarticulated longing for it all the more poignant.
Though the passage of time is central to the plot of East 10th Street, at its heart the play is not about nostalgia for a lost era so much as for lost people. A murderous midget moves out of the building to marry a turkey farm heiress (yes), but Oliver uncovers the man’s belongings in the cellar and realizes he hasn’t really left, until the day the suitcase is inexplicably gone. An alcoholic neighbor is carried off to a nursing home in a stretcher, but when Oliver calls the home to check up on the man, they’ve never heard of him. In one of the play’s most evocative descriptions, Oliver tells of reaching for a lover after they’ve quarreled, only to have the boy’s body come to pieces in his hands. That it turns out he had reached by mistake for an old pile of clothes couches the horror of the image in absurdist humor without detracting from Oliver’s profound sense of loss.
Under the direction of Randy Sharp, Oliver’s frequent collaborator and fellow Axis Company member, the production lasts just an hour. Oliver takes his time with each story, which helps make East 10th Street feel like a complete evening of theater. So too does the number of years covered by the stories. Still, a few plot points feel cut short. What happens, for example, to Oliver’s sister Helen? An eccentric artist who served as Oliver’s constant companion, her moving out must have impacted his quality of life, but it's not mentioned. She’s simply not there by the end, and her forgotten presence keeps the audience from being able to miss her. If the creators were worried that lengthening the already slow-paced production would cause audiences to grow restless, they needn’t have. Anyone looking for obvious laugh lines will be frustrated regardless.
East Tenth Street rewards audiences who allow themselves to be tickled by Oliver’s sweetly off-kilter delivery. His nostalgia for the past, combined with his focused engagement with the present, make Oliver a masterful storyteller. If conventional wisdom holds that no one stays in a New York City apartment for long, it’s well worth listening to someone who did so and lived, as the saying goes, to tell the tale.