“It’s a city of strangers. Some come to work some to play. A city of strangers. Some come to stare, some to stay. And every day, some go away.”
Those lyrics, from the song “Another Hundred People” by Stephen Sondheim, celebrate the heartbeat of a city — a city of fast-moving transients who sometimes connect for a fleeting moment, but mostly keep about their own private business.
But what if we took a moment to really peer into the lives of these people who make up our fellow commuters?
Simon Stephens’ subtly powerful one-act play, Pornography, takes a voyeuristic view into a cross-section of London residents: a woman fed up with her job to the point of committing career suicide, an unemployed teacher who flirts with his mentor for a job, a man obsessed with his female professor, an octiginarian widow who quietly xxxplores the internet at night. All seemingly normal people with dirty, dark secrets and desires.
And then there’s a clean-cut young man sporting a backpack who serves as the the raw inspiration for the play. This man, played with cool intensity by John Taflan, is en route to carry out a carefully coordinated plan to bomb the London Underground — a tragic event which took place July 7, 2005 and killed 52 people and injured more than 700.
After all, as different as we may be in terms of priorities, virtues and talents, we’re equally powerless when it comes to acts of terrorism on a crowded subway car. And, even more chilling yet, this young terrorist actually seems more confident about his life’s purpose than the other people in this play — the very people who make up his potential victims.
That said, despite some provocative ideas and a very, very fine production by Steep featuring a stellar ensemble cast, it took me some time to be drawn into Stephens’ admirable play. The seven monologues and duologues that comprise the piece are a grab-bag of emotional and thematic content delivered by mostly unlikable people. It was difficult for me to reconcile the disconnection of the piece.
But stick through to the end. In the play’s moving final moments, an elderly spinster (Maggie Cain) quite literally steps out of her comfort zone to ask a simple favor of a stranger. And the surprised stranger hesitantly obliges.
This small act of generosity demonstrates that even in a world where innocent people are blown up on their way to work, kindness and compassion are not extinct. Through the smoke there is light.
“Pornography” plays through September 3 at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave. Dates subject to change. Visit Steep’s website for more info.