THEATER REVIEW | 'BRIDGE & TUNNEL'
The Voices Inside the Border but Outside the Margins
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Sarah Jones in one of the many personalities she inhabits in "Bridge & Tunnel."

By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
Published: January 27, 2006

The voices may leave a pleasurable tickle in your ears for a few days, possibly because most of us have never studied them closely before. They're the quiet murmurs of the city that usually form a dimly perceived backdrop for our own daily dramas.

The lyrical sound of the woman in the subway that leaves you wondering about her background. The anxious tone radiating from that fellow — Indian or Pakistani? — who brushed past you on the street, imploring someone on a cellphone. The stream of hot gossip bubbling from the Latino girl at the post office, a comic aria courtesy of the Bronx.

Now, here they are before us, those strangers who pique our interest and pass by. They're singing their souls from the stage, drawing us out of our own circumscribed worlds and into theirs. And all inhabit the remarkable person of Sarah Jones, the gifted author and sole star of "Bridge & Tunnel," which opened last night at the Helen Hayes Theater, bringing a refreshing taste of the outer boroughs to the heart of Broadway.

A substantial downtown hit two seasons ago, "Bridge & Tunnel" is Ms. Jones's sweet-spirited valentine to New York City, its polyglot citizens and the larger notion of an all-inclusive America, that ideal place where concepts like liberty, equality and opportunity have concrete meaning and are not just boilerplate phrases slapped around in stump speeches and news conferences.

In 90 minutes of acutely observed portraiture gently tinted with humor, Ms. Jones plays more than a dozen men and women participating in an open-mike evening of poetry for immigrants, held at a friendly dive in "beautiful South Queens," a step up from the Starbucks, where the sound of the espresso machine created irksome acoustical problems.

Ms. Jones is Mohammed Ali (he's heard all the jokes), the genial host who is hopelessly proud of his awful sense of humor, antsy and eager in his ill-fitting jacket. She is Lorraine Levine, of Long Island, stooped with age into an S shape, eyes big as moons behind those magnifying lenses, proud to share her contribution, a brief lyric titled "No, Really, Please, Don't Get Up."
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times Sarah Jones in her one-woman show "Bridge & Tunnel," a play highlighting the immigrant experience.   She is the Vietnamese-American Bao Viet Dinh, voice husky with attitude that's a few sizes too large, spitting out terse lines of verse that scorn stereotype: "This is not an ode to Bruce Lee!"

Ms. Jones, who was born in Baltimore, is an astonishing mimic with an uncanny ability to alter the texture, color and volume of her voice and even the shape of her body. Close your eyes and you would never imagine that the breathy chirp of that nervous but exhilarated 11-year-old girl could come from the same larynx unleashing those guttural expectorations from the old Russian guy. Open them again, and wonder at how this lanky actress seems to lose six inches when she slips into the persona of the cocky young African-American rapper, who looks like a giant tangerine in his oversize orange parka.

These are technical skills that invite gasps of admiration, and deserve them. Admire, please. Gasp and applaud to your heart's content.

Just don't downgrade Ms. Jones's talent to a mere gift for impressions, an actor's stunt. A natural affinity for precise impersonation can only be developed into a tool of artistic expression through hard work enriched with empathy for the complicated souls behind the colorful sounds. Proof that Ms. Jones has put her actorly gifts in service to something larger than selfdisplay is found in her writing for these fully imagined characters,which is lively, compassionate, mildly sardonic and smart.

Inevitably, some portraits are more freshly conceived than others, and delivered with more conviction. The performance-art parody from a Jamaican woman feels rote, for instance, and the Russian doesn't bring much to the party other than his status as the lone white guy. But the production, which has been smoothly directed by Tony Taccone, has gained in consistency since its Off Broadway run.

It also seems more steeped in unease about the current state of the Union than it was downtown. Mohammed's cellphone conversations with his wife about an impending and mysterious interview with the feds — he immigrated from Pakistan in 1985 — feel tenser and more pointed, the bad jokes taking on an air of desperation. "Amina, please, why would they care about a poetry reading?," he asks. "What, I am now hiding the limericks of mass destruction?"

Mrs. Levine, a Polish-German-Lithuanian-American Jew, provides some perspective about today's climate of simmering anxiety about immigration. "Listen, when my family came here — from Eastern
Europe — they were saying the same thing about us immigrants that they say now about you." But she's a staunch booster of the American way of life, after a fashion. "Here in America we have freedom to say what we want, be what we want, to decide what happens in our country," she says, adding, "We even get to decide what happens in other people's countries."

Was that a cellphone, or did I just hear someone's PC alarm going off? Also among Ms. Jones's entertainingly odd men and women out are a Chinese-American mother of a lesbian daughter

anguished at having to part with a girlfriend who lacks permanent residency, and a wheelchair-bound Mexican man who tells of his arduous journey north in search of economic advantages.

In short, if multiculturalism is a dirty word to you, "Bridge & Tunnel" will probably give you hives. But Ms. Jones has closely studied the way all sorts of people order their thoughts, express their hopes and fears and tentatively try to fit the whole of their personalities into an inadequate new vocabulary. The stories of their struggles and anxieties have the uneven rhythms and shaggy shape of experience clumsily but feelingly put into unfamiliar words; they are never just anecdotes cut and trimmed to form
political paper airplanes aimed at the audience.

And in focusing on the immigrant experience, Ms. Jones is honoring anew, and embodying in theatrical form, the durable dream that keeps drawing immigrants to America, even in today's more fractious political climate and uncertain economy. It's a concept even the staunchest supporter of a strict immigration policy wouldn't dare to disavow, because it happens to be the subject of that popular performance piece that has been playing in New York Harbor for more than a century now.

That one is also a solo show, starring a big green dame with a torch. Ms. Jones's "Bridge & Tunnel" is naturally somewhat smaller in scale, but it's a worthy sequel. A lot funnier, too.

Bridge & Tunnel

Written and performed by Sarah Jones; directed by Tony Taccone; sets by David Korins; lighting by Howell Binkley; sound by Christopher Cronin; assistant director, Steve Colman; production stage manager,Laurie Goldfeder; technical supervision, Aurora Productions; general management, Richards/Climan Inc. Presented by Eric Falkenstein, Michael Alden and Boyett Ostar Productions. At the Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street; (212) 239- 6200. Through March 12. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.


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