Nov 25, 2017

Review Files: Sarah Jones's Bridge & Tunnel

Sarah Jones in Bridge & Tunnel. (Photo by Paul Kolnik), Feb. 1, 2006

Bridge & Tunnel
Reviewed by Rob Kendt

If the Tonys had an ensemble award, Sarah Jones would be an odds-on favorite. For among the many feats of her extraordinary solo show Bridge & Tunnel, newly transferred to Broadway after a hit downtown run, is the palpable sense of community Jones creates among her 14 fictional characters. These finely drawn and even more sensitively acted figures—readers at an immigrant-themed South Queens poetry open mike—appear individually, with the merest change in posture, costume and eyewear. But Jones knits their entrances and exits together so smoothly and sympathetically that when the evening's genial emcee, a jittery Pakistani joker named Mohammed Ali, asks for applause for a young performer who just "left" the stage, we clap appreciatively, as if she were actually walking back to her seat.

Jones' artistry as a mimic is what grabs us first. She can sketch a person's entire body of experience on her thin, rangy frame, then color in these contours with her voice, which can modulate texture and tempo as freely as she changes accents. But it soon dawns on us with something close to awe that Jones is not really mimicking at all but rendering a world with a novelistic attention to detail, in an imaginative style closer to that of Lily Tomlin or Danny Hoch than to the docu-theatrics of Anna Deavere Smith or Culture Clash. If Bridge & Tunnel feels a bit more like the non-fiction variety, it's probably because the participants at Jones' imagined poetry reading don't offer poems so much as they do straightforward narratives about their immigrant experiences.

It's also because Jones is so self-effacing, both as a performer and as a writer. She keeps the show's patter realistic to a fault, down to every hem and haw and misfired joke. Mohammed, in particular, is the sort of over-eager goofball who provides his own laugh track, even if his laughter begins to sound more desperate as we learn that he's the subject of an ominous-sounding federal investigation. But as skilled as Jones is at inhabiting these impossibly diverse ages, genders, and nationalities, what makes Bridge & Tunnel more than a mere virtuoso showcase is the acuity and insight of her writing. Jones captures the distinct voices of these variegated immigrants so well, and with such an invisible authorial touch, that the show feels like a social documentary in the best possible sense.

It will occur to some theatergoers that for all the truthfulness of these individual portraits, there's a certain amount of rose-colored thinking in juxtaposing them without sparking any inter-cultural tension. The closest the show comes to that kind of friction is when DJ Rashid, a bouncy young rapper in a big orange parka, rushes the stage and offers some ill-considered opinions of Barack Obama and the affinity between immigrants and African-Americans. Otherwise, irreproachable politeness and liberality prevails: A Jordanian woman in hijab praises sensual Arab poetry and "women's freedom"; a conservative Chinese matriarch recounts how she learned to accept her lesbian daughter; a sweet elderly woman assures today's immigrants that her parents, Eastern European Jews, were treated with exactly the same suspicion and prejudice that greets today's new arrivals. There's a slight thread of suspense about Mohammed's fate, but this is attenuated and dropped unceremoniously in the show's uncharacteristically weak final moments.

If she skimps on conflict among her characters, though, Jones doesn't flinch from the complexities of their bi-cultural immigrant lives. A Vietnamese-American slam poet counts the ways he's alienated from both mainstream culture and from his own; a Chicano union organizer, injured on a construction site, talks with heartbreaking past-tense hopefulness about his crushed dreams; a Haitian woman embodies the mix of optimism and outrage felt by newcomers who believe in the American promise with more passion than natives ever do.

The evening's giddy high point comes when a stagestruck 11 year old reads a doggerel poem from a school notebook in a chirpy singsong, pausing with intoxicated glee when she gets a laugh. Not only is Jones' rendition of this pre-teen pixie close to an out-of-body experience; the girl's poem, about not wanting to grow up and feel her elders' pain, is a gem-like study in Jones' ability to write pointedly from within her characters' experiences. This precocious charmer is the one, naturally, who gets our applause even after she's disappeared.

This is the great gift of Bridge & Tunnel, liberal pieties and all. It's one thing to feel empathy for the show's outsiders—marginalized people who are too often absent from our stages and audiences, let alone our national conversation. It's quite another to do what Jones does here, which is to put such empathy into action, and to demonstrate its imaginative power on no less a platform than a commercial Broadway stage. Jones' craft resembles that of a sleight-of-hand artist with inexhaustible tricks up her sleeve. But on her sleeve is the unmistakable impression of her heart.

Bridge & Tunnel
Conceived by Sarah Jones and Steve Colman
By Sarah Jones
Directed by Tony Taccone
Helen Hayes Theatre

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