Melissa Miller and Scott Kerns in Heart of the City
(© Jeramy Peay)
Melissa Miller and Scott Kerns in Heart of the City
(© Jeramy Peay)
There may be even more than eight million stories in the naked city, but in Eric Lane's 90-minute play Heart of the City, now at the Theatre at 30th Street, the playwright is content to intercut just a few of them, gingerly walking this side of the line between sentiment and sentimentality, and only occasionally stepping over it.

There's not even a tinge of sentimentality when Max (Martin LaPlatney) observes to fellow subway rider Nola (Marcia Jean Kurtz) that "New York is a city of lost souls," in the hopes of ingratiating himself with the hard-edged Nola. But, the phrase "lost souls" is an overstatement; what Lane demonstrates here is a city of people doing their level best to get through the day and the following night -- and often not doing badly at all.

While Max constantly runs into Nola on the train, Spanish émigré Carlos (Scott Kerns) arrives to live the freewheeling gay life promised him by his psychotherapist, Doctor Mendelsohn (LaPlatney). Meanwhile, the ailing Sue Fisher (Kurtz) and her younger self (Melissa Miller) deliver her memories of a marriage, her talent in the kitchen, and her relationship with daughter Lynn (Eliza Foss) and son Bobby (Kerns).

For their parts, Lynn, who has four miscarriages before fade-out, is having understandable relationship problems with husband Michael (Mark Setlock), while Bobby unwinds from his advertising-job stress by sitting in a massage chair at a furniture emporium where British-accented Jemma (Miller) eventually jollies him into returning to painting. Meanwhile, across town, online dating fan Elizabeth (Foss) befriends 14-year-old Heather (Miller), who in turn befriends Elizabeth's nephew, Noah (Kerns).

The other continuing encounter is between a man called Harry (LaPlatney), who sits on a park bench, where Michael repeatedly attempts to get Harry to admit they're father and son. There's every reason to believe it might be so -- and that this is Lynn's Michael, since he appears to be wearing the same tie -- but one can't be sure since the sequences are more surreal than the others and therefore in a different tone from the surrounding vignettes.

Although some of the episodes concern extremely serious events, Lane keeps things from descending into the lower depths, for better and worse. Nevertheless, there are moments of insight, compassion, and wisdom -- and they're all illuminated by the energetic cast as they make their changes into Carol Sherry's easily donned-and-doffed costumes behind Bob Barrett's generic and divided upstage wall.

For an example of Lane's acumen, take the 10-item dating list Carlos compiles after hustling in the streets, sometimes with pet boa constrictor Carlito. His dos and don'ts include: 1) On the first date, always meet in public -- it's harder to be stabbed over coffee than at the date's apartment; 2) Always meet at a place you've never been -- that way if the date goes bad, at least you try a new restaurant; and 3) The date must be nice to the waiter. These are indisputable dictates to anyone who's ever spent more than a few months exploring the heart of New York City.