The cast of redbird
The cast of redbird
The aging subway cars referred to in the title of Studio-42's new show redbird, after running on several New York City interborough lines for years, have been slated by the MTA for sinking in the Atlantic Ocean to serve as artificial reefs supporting marine life. This disarming new play focuses on how the vehicles supported human life over the course of one recent day, in a series of vignettes energetically presented by this promising young troupe.

Members of the ensemble cast inhabit various roles throughout the piece, in monologues and in group scenes -- mostly comic, some dramatic, some fantastical. In one of the show's more poignant moments, a young woman (Hannah Bos) whose development was arrested by a childhood accident gets lost in the subway system. Bos, who is one of the best actors in redbird, also brings a venturesome spirit and a terrific comic sense to a scene wherein a bit of anonymous subway groping gets out of control.

In another sequence, a young man tries to speak to an attractive woman on the train, his awkward body language alone wringing laughs from the audience. Paul Thureen displays real talent as this young man and also rivets us in redbird's most dramatic section, playing a man who has been trapped under a collapsed building. In a scene that is probably the show's most difficult in terms of its obscure writing and static direction, Alexa Scott-Flaherty does admirable work as a religious young woman who views the world as though it were a book of the Bible. Bradford Louryk shows a gift for physical comedy in his bits as a stressed-out businessman and as a dancer whose engagement with the train becomes his finest work.

It seems that redbird was developed by director Isaac Butler in collaboration with playwright Clay McLeod Chapman through a series of workshops with Studio-42's actors, by whom and for whom the material was shaped. Overall, this strategy has paid off, though the re-use of particular dramatic situations -- feet getting trapped between the train and the platform, young women lost on the train, etc. -- is sometimes distracting.

To Chapman's credit there are some inspired touches in the writing such as the use of nautical themes in several spots, including a Moby Dick spoof featuring Abe Goldfarb that is at once hilarious and haunting. Butler's direction opts for the energetic over the subtle, generally with success. The show is a bit too long to run without an intermission or some sort of break, but the company has done terrific work with the space. There is good sound design by Brian PJ Cronin, an impressive set by Andrew Thompson, and resourceful lighting by Michael K. Berelson.

Chapman's script portrays the subway itself as a ravenous animal and offers more evidence of the cars' violence toward people than of that between people. This is interesting and in some ways puzzling, even though it's true that the subways are more free of crime than they once were. As mentioned above, the ensemble scenes in redbird tend toward the comical, avoiding the kind of unique social tension that can occur among groups of strangers confronted by an aggressive person on public transportation.

Regardless, this show is a satisfying portrait of the sprawling operation that serves as this town's circulatory system. In the closing moments of the play, Phoebe Ventouras adopts the accent and demeanor of a woman from another era, riding the cars and remembering her loved ones from the mid-20th century. Had some of the earlier monologues been less overtly comic, we might have been more primed for this quiet, sterling sequence.

Studio-42 has herein delivered its second solid production of the season, the first having been love/sad. The mixture of ambition and lightheartedness in the troupe's work places it among the most promising young theater companies in New York City. One hopes that, in Studio-42's move toward more challenging material, the company and its audiences will remain as open-minded and risk-taking as they have been to date.