The tagline for the off-Broadway production “The Man Under” at 59E59 Theater reads, “An urban love story about four people in New York City who struggle with what they want and how to express it.” It sounds like the description of a romantic comedy, which, at first, doesn’t seem far off. Two roommates and their neighbor hang out in the simulacrum of a New York City apartment, complete with The Beatles posters, an IKEA love seat and a guitar amp with a Sleigh Bells sticker.
Then the audience learns what the group wants and starts to understand how they express it. Jeff (portrayed by playwright Paul Bomba) is struggling with what he calls “suicidal impulses.” When a subway passes by, “the impulse is to jump [onto the tracks], but the thought is to grab onto a pipe.” He meets a girl who seems to be experiencing the same feeling, and the two share a moment reminiscent of the standard, random encounter leading to romance — with a twist.
For the next half an hour, one believes that the girl, Lisa (Briana Pozner) is your average Manic Pixie Dream Girl, with slightly more morbid interests. As the play continues, that belief is shattered. Lisa’s interests are significantly more disturbing and include lying under passing trains. We learn that Lisa is a dead ringer for Jeff’s fiancé, whom he lost to cancer. Symbolically, she’s death incarnate, a Freudian zombie with a predatory agenda. Lisa’s proclamation to Jeff, “I’m yours now,” is an extremely frightening moment.
Jeff and Lisa’s macabre romance is contrasted to the relationship between his roommate, Martin (Curran Connor), and their neighbor, Jennifer (Veronique Ory). The two watch Yankees’ games together while Jeff and Lisa run around, hiding in ditches to avoid getting decapitated and have sex in dark, graffiti-filled subway tunnels. However, Martin and Jennifer do little more than illuminate the difference between romance at its most dangerous and destructive and a more normal courtship process. Their relationship functions more as a distraction than as a poignant counterpoint to Jeff and Lisa’s.
Bomba’s script and Benjamin Kamine’s direction are both competent, but they do little to alleviate the audience’s discomfort with the material, which may be the point. That point is moot, however, since Jeff’s only interests seem to be his suicidal thoughts, and that leaves very little to root for. “The Man Under” elicits little other than distaste and discomfort. And, after all that, you have to ride the subway home.
“The Man Under” is playing now through Feb. 17 at 59E59 Theater C, 59 E. 59th St.
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Feb. 7 print edition. Alexander Tsebelis is a contributing writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.