“The Bard of Gridlock” is how The New York Times described writer and performer John McDonagh. The Queens born Mr. McDonagh’s slight, old-time New York accent, gentle wise guy persona and superior comic timing perfectly realizes his well-constructed script.
Now there are a lot of problems here in New York City. We got homelessness; we got the gangs; we got shootings. But Mayor De Blasio is fixated on only one thing: He has to help the horses in Central Park.
This observation inspires an hilarious comparison between the exalted treatment of carriage horses versus the lousy conditions cab drivers contend with, and is one of the sidesplitting highlights of the show.
Set designer Charlie Corcoran ingeniously has the small stage’s walls adorned with sections of a yellow cab. Off to the side is a piece containing the steering wheel from where McDonagh periodically speaks. Above this, is a screen bordered by vintage billboard pictures. This showcases Chris Kateff’s dazzling projection design that illustratively displays imagery of New York City from various eras, video clips and slides such as the 1975 New York Daily News headline, “Ford To City: Drop Dead.”
From there, McDonagh wheels himself out in a driver’s seat that’s draped with a beaded cushion. Director Ciaran O’Reilly’s simple yet crisp staging briskly enhances McDonagh’s storytelling with aesthetic precision as well as unifying the technical elements into a compelling presentation.
Mr. McDonagh’s spirited 70-minute recitation about his 35 years behind the wheel of a yellow cab is chock full of the expected encounters with drunks, pregnant women, drug addicts, the homeless, the police and the hardships of the job. A major observation he personifies is the decline of the presence of “real” New Yorkers, colorful characters from the outer boroughs. He is part of a vanishing breed.
What makes Off The Meter, On The Record even more entertaining is that it also skillfully incorporates anecdotes from McDonagh’s eventful life.
As a son of Irish immigrants, my career path was supposed to be: You graduate high school, You do your time in the service, come back, You take the Sanitation, the NYPD, the Fire Department tests.
New York City in the 1970’s was on the brink of financial collapse and was laying off members of those professions. Driving a taxi seemed like a more secure job. That most people only do it for five years is among the sobering facts about this way of life that is imparted, as are the harsh economics. Uber and Lyft are making the profession increasingly obsolete.
We learn of his Irish activism that includes supporting of the IRA and how that inadvertently caused a major international incident involving Margaret Thatcher. Attempting to be a contestant on The Amazing Race, appearing on unsuccessful reality shows, meeting Stephen Fry, Mel Brooks and Salman Rushdie, and ambushing Fox News about George W. Bush in 2004 are some of the lively adventures that he recounts. McDonagh currently hosts a WBAI radio show and is an ardent Progressive. His wife and daughter are briefly mentioned.
Sound designer M. Florian Staab and lighting designer Michael O’Connor’s expert contributions add to the piece’s theatrical dimensions.
There’s no costume designer credited so the faded khaki cargo pants, frayed brown shirt and U.S. Army Veteran baseball cap that John McDonagh wears are presumably his selections, typifying the engaging authenticity of Off The Meter, On The Record.
Do any of you ever wonder what it’s like to be a cab driver? As a matter of fact, it is starting off very good right now. You are sitting down. Sit down where you are now for the next twelve hours. Piss into a bottle. Have the person behind you vomit. Now you know a little of what it is like to be a Yellow Cab Driver.
Off The Meter, On The Record (extended through November 18, 2017)
Irish Repertory Theatre
W. Scott McLucas Studio Stage, 132 West 22nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-727-2737 or visit http://www.irishrep.org
Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission