There’s a famous joke about a man who prays for years to win the lottery. He tries to live a righteous life and promises to use the money for good, but his prayers grow increasingly bitter. One day, as he’s leaving church, having given God an earful, the clouds part and a voice booms, “Hey, moron, you have to buy a ticket!” A Gambler’s Guide to Dying, which launches 59E59’s 13th annual Brits Off Broadway festival this week, is about a man for whom buying the ticket is more than good advice; it’s his life philosophy.
The playful title Signal Failure refers, on the one hand, to a subway signal and, on the other, to signals between Brian and Lorna, a young couple who connect through their dogged observations of people in the London Underground, aka the "Tube" (they’re British and the show comes from the Edinburgh Festival), and then face some bumpy times.
Structured as a series of monologues, sometimes interlocking, from two lonely people, and then eventually incorporating scenes between them, as they connect for sex and their common interest, Signal Failure relies for its charm and romanticism on the immense charm of its two stars. Sasha Ellen, who plays Lorna with a matter-of-fact optimism and a touch of daffiness, also wrote the piece. Her opposite, Spenser Cowan, plays Brian, who begins their story, relating his hobby of watching men and women on the Tube.
“There’s a bloke sitting opposite me. About my age,” says Brian. “In a suit that makes him look small. Scruffy. He majorly oversteps the initial 10-second window. Not just that, but he does it with a girl I wouldn’t even open that window with. She stares intently at her iPad but stops moving her hand. She’s frozen but she doesn’t look up.” She knows she’s being watched, of course.
Brian’s hobby eventually becomes more dogged, as he follows the couples he sees connecting on the Tube, noticing when they leave together and whether they are wearing the same clothing on the following day. “I create a basic structure and watch my stats improve,” he says. It turns out that his own life is empty, through no fault of his own, and he is just trying to fill it.
One day, though, while reading the newspaper, “I find a column with what seems to be personal ads. But when I look closer is actually people texting in about other people they’ve seen on the train. People they’ve liked the look of. Asking them to get in touch. Like an Underground dating agency in a newspaper column. Each text smacks of hope desperation. Most of the messages are generic. ‘To the pretty girl who smiled at me in a crowded carriage’ kind of messages.”
For her part, Lorna becomes clued in to the ads when she tries to comfort a friend, Maddy. “She tells me that she read something that she was convinced was for her. She hands me the newspaper, folded open on a page towards the back. I don’t get it at first but then it clicks. All these people writing in to the paper. Trying to get in touch with someone they glimpsed on the train. It’s quite a cool idea in theory. I try to talk to Maddy, but she’s distraught and I’m a stranger. She wipes her eyes and leaves. I sit in the bathroom for a bit and read the other posts. They are pretty varied in sincerity and tone. Ranging from ‘Yo 2 da curvy blond’ to ‘I believe we are meant to be together.’ ”
Eventually Brian and Lorna meet and sort of click. They make rookie mistakes. Some of the best scenes are these lurching, nuanced ones as they both hang in for the long haul to happiness. As with all romance, eventually their lonely and unhappy pasts trickle out and cause problems. They’re a bit contrived, but the actors are persuasive. (It’s a wonder that Ellen’s first-date description of beams of light shooting out of her pelvis doesn’t scare him off.)
Although the drama is low-key, director Peter Darney keeps the focus on the remarkable chemistry between his actors. (The only set elements are two large wooden cubes and a platform that become table or bed.) Ellen and Cowan are endearing as they stumblingly come together. There’s playfulness from Lorna as she sends a near-naked Brian out to the kitchen as a signal to her roommates that she’s successfully had a night of passion. Meanwhile, a variety of emotions play on Brian’s face the morning after; and when he says, “I will call you, maybe,” it’s with an amusing ambivalence; he’s trying not to be vulnerable. Should he see this girl again or not?
Although Signal Failure may feel small, it carries the weight of truth and serves as an enjoyable calling card for two talented actors you’ll want to see again.
Signal Failure plays at the SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam St., through Nov. 16. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday (with no performance on Nov. 6). Matinees are 3 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday, and 5 p.m. on Saturdays. For tickets, visit www.sohoplayhouse.com.