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Theatre in Review: Off the Meter, On the Record (Irish Repertory Theatre)

John McDonagh. Photo: Carol Rosegg

For some reason -- maybe because Uber and Lyft are stealing their jobs -- cab drivers are taking over our stages. Just a couple of weeks ago, we had Ace, Ted Greenberg's account of life as a taxi-driving slacker, despite his Harvard education, master-of-the-universe dad, and gig writing for David Letterman. Now comes Off the Meter, On the Record, John McDonagh's memoir, subtitled "Driving New York City Crazy for 35 Years." A world-class complainer, he has plenty to say about passengers who pass out before arriving at their destinations, fares who want him to wait while they complete their drug deals, and women in labor who will pass a dozen hospitals to get to the one of their preference. In one of his droller passages, he compares his lot with that of the horses who pull the Central Park carriages. Guess who has a union, gets showered and scrubbed twice a day, and enjoys two months' vacation each summer?

In his best Rodney Dangerfield moment, McDonagh quotes a New York Times obituary for the jazz musician Duke Jordan: "Like a lot of his contemporaries in the sixties, he became addicted to heroin. He was then reduced to driving a cab in New York City." Without missing a beat, McDonagh cracks, "The only way I can go up now in life is to become a heroin addict."

In this off-the-cuff evening of anecdotes dotted with wisecracks and loaded with New York color, McDonagh proves himself to be such a practiced entertainer that it's not surprising that many of his tales focus on his career as a media personality and political activist. (Among other things, he has been the host of Radio Free Eireann, a weekly broadcast on WBAI, for nearly as long as he has been driving a cab.) An attempt at landing a berth on The Amazing Race descends into farce: Teaming up with a Jewish friend, they shamelessly exploit their differences for the camera ("We had become caricatures of caricatures"). A brief stint on a reality series called Taxi Cab Wars is quickly aborted, although it yields a lively video of McDonagh chatting up a roller-skating drag queen. For a BBC series, McDonagh takes the actor Stephen Fry to a Queens "social club," introducing him to the regulars, who gleefully point out the bullet holes in the wall.

His political capers are even zestier. A plan to run a message of support for imprisoned members of the IRA on the One Times Square Jumbotron (back when it was the only such sign in the neighborhood) spirals into an international incident, incurring the displeasure of Margaret Thatcher. (Something tells me he'd do that one over again, gladly.) Appalled at the idea of holding the 2004 GOP convention at Madison Square Garden, he founds CAB (Cabbies Against Bush) and lands an interview with Fox News' Neil Cavuto, who is clearly upset to learn that the city's working classes harbor such rebels. (I'll let him tell you the details of his plan to deport Bill O'Reilly to Iraq.)

An amiable bulldog with a level stare and desert-dry delivery, McDonagh is fine company for an hour and a quarter, and his director, Ciarán O'Reilly, has gifted him with a nifty production, starting with Charlie Corcoran's set, a Cubist arrangement of taxicab parts, complete with a movable driver's seat. Michael O'Connor's lighting adds to the lively atmosphere and M. Florian Staab provides a symphony of city sounds, including 1010 WINS broadcasts, traffic noises, angry crowds, and Lenny Kravitz's "Mr. Cab Driver." Chris Kateff's projection design includes aerial city shots, a montage of McDonagh's many hack licenses, horses trotting in the park, and excerpts from the star's numerous television appearances.

McDonagh even manages a touching finale, in which he is invited by PEN to read a poem at one of its galas; the piece is about the ever-changing New York scene and it makes thoroughly clear that he is the quintessential native New Yorker, one who equally loves and loathes the city he can't do without. If you spend an hour with him in the driver's seat, you can expect a smooth, entertaining ride. -- David Barbour


(27 October 2017)

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