Harried commuters, desperate beggars, cripples
of all sorts – in the subway, we see them all. Writer-performer
Michael Schwartz puts then onstage in his hilarious, heartrending
and ultimately brilliant one-man show about seven people waiting
for a train that never arrives.
"In the Shadow of the Third Rail," which premiered
last January at Stamford’s Unitarian Universalist Society, plays
for one more week at Park Slope’s Brooklyn Lyceum. If you miss
your train, don’t worry; if you miss this show, it would really
be a shame.
Schwartz has an expressive and mobile face, an athletic body
and a marvelous gift for accents. With no scenery and a few props
– cell phone, wheelchair, handbag – he creates intense situations
and utterly believable characters. At the same time, he demolishes
the fourth wall, commenting on the actions of people in the audience
and inviting them into the action onstage.
Schwartz first appears as Ali, a paraplegic Pakistani taxi driver
paralyzed by a passenger’s bullet just when he has finally succeeded
in bringing his wife and children to America.
"Why are most taxi drivers immigrants?" he asks. "Because
the Statue of Liberty is hailing a cab!" Just as the Lady
of the Harbor never gets her taxi, Ali never gets his dream to
Ali metamorphoses into Link, a man who thinks he’s a squirrel
and plans to take over the world "for the last true urban
"We don’t want your food; we want your finger," he
tells a young lady in the audience. Schwartz crawls, climbs and
capers on- and offstage and even sniffs the air with movements
so like a squirrel, many will be looking for his tail.
Schwartz grabs a pocketbook and becomes Sarah, a depressed lease
contract administrator addicted to antidepressants and anesthetized
by TV commercials, which she can recite at will. Her cell phone
is a lifeline to her husband who is somewhere above ground in
the not very reassuring world of recession, war and lost love
and desire. Her life is driven by materialism.
"While the president does the fighting, we’ve got to do
the shopping," she admonishes her husband.
One of Schwartz’s most moving characters is Pavlos, a man with
cerebral palsy, who shares with Joseph, a suicidal subway singer,
a love song he has secretly written for a woman he once met in
a hospital. As Pavlos sings his poignant song about a girl whose
tears turn to rain, and Joseph listens, Schwartz executes a series
of seamless transitions that are truly breathtaking. Pavlos reminds
Joseph, as well as the entranced audience, of what really matters
Wanda, a homeless panhandler, wanders among the audience looking
for a handout. And Jose, a Latin American immigrant who lost
his eyes to a fire in the chicken factory where he was employed,
searches for people who want lessons in salsa dancing so he can
earn money to pay the school where he is studying to become a
Many of Schwartz’s characters are so real, and their suffering
is so acute, they are actually painful to watch. Yet just as
hapless commuters endure the harangues and importunities they
confront every day, the audience endures, and in the end enjoys
(in a revelatory way), Schwartz’s performance.
If Schwartz turns the stage into a subway platform, he also turns
the subway platform into a microcosm of the world. His characters
are the victims of a society not civilized enough to care for
its most vulnerable citizens – the crippled, the impoverished,
the insane – or even for their home, the very earth itself.
Ali waves his flag for a country that has betrayed his faith
in it. Link bemoans the fact that a squirrel can no longer get
cross-country by hopping from tree to tree. Pavlos relates that
the woman he fell in love with was the only one who didn’t think
he was retarded, and he was the only one who didn’t think she
"In the Shadow of the Third Rail" is so intense that
many people may be almost relieved when it’s over. But however
they get home, taking the subway will never again be the same.
"In the Shadow of the Third Rail"
has three more performances: June 13, 14 and 15 at 8 pm at the
Brooklyn Lyceum, 227 Fourth Ave. at President Street in Park
Slope. Tickets are $15, $12 online, $10 seniors and students.
For reservations, call (718) 857-4816.