Review: “Sublet” and “American Tranquility” at the Downtown Urban Arts Festival

Anthony J. Piccione

  • New York Theatre Critic

There’s a simple fact about theatre festivals that I try not to mention quite as much, if only out of respect for all the artists who put up their work: Some of the shows that are produced there are truly brilliant; other shows have potential, but need further development; then, there are the ones that are just flat-out terrible. During my most recent visit to the Downtown Urban Arts Festival, I had the chance to see the two extremes on full-display, in the form of two one-acts that couldn’t possibly be more different from one another.

First came Sublet, written by Alisa Zhulina and starring Rachel A. Collins, Olivia Jampol, and Viet Vo. The basic concept sounds like natural comedic fodder: A young med student from out of town sublets a place in New York, only to find out the place she is living in isn’t quite what she hoped it would be, to say the least.

Unfortunately, the overall plot feels incoherent beyond that, as it often seems like a play that doesn’t know what it wants to be about beyond its three-line synopsis, and doesn’t have many laugh lines to make up for it. There are two or three lines that got a laugh out of me, but for the most part, it feels like the play relies too much on the natural awkwardness of the situation for entertainment value, without giving much thought to where the overall direction of the plot is going. The acting isn’t terrible, but unfortunately for this cast, it’s not enough to make up for the fact that their characters are lazily written, and given dialogue that often feels mediocre at best. It’s easily one of the worst plays I’ve seen so far in 2018.

https_%2F%2Fcdn.evbuc.com%2Fimages%2F42718099%2F168185106965%2F1%2Foriginal.jpg

On the other hand, American Tranquility is probably one of the best one-person shows that I’ve ever reviewed, both in terms of its performance and its concept. The brainchild of the highly talented character actor Daniel Damiano, this show explores many of the social, political and cultural divides that pervade America, and have been exacerbated under the Trump administration. It does so through the perspective of four separate characters: an elderly man from the deep South who reflects on the differences between the young and old; a percussionist from Iran who discusses his perspective on the way immigrants such as himself are frequently treated; a right-wing talk show host who cites genuine economic concerns of many Americans as an excuse for some of the worst racial tendencies of a large portion of society; and my personal favorite, a middle-aged man from Brooklyn living in the woods, as he reflects on everything from how technology has changed society, to the overall meaning of life itself. I admit that I was skeptical, as I read the program, whether Mr. Damiano could actually pull off a performance of each of these diverse characters, who seemingly were meant to be portrayed by separate actors. Yet I was easily proven wrong. The play does a very fine job at exploring the division in modern American society on a very human level, and Damiano seamlessly pulls off each of the four individual performances of the characters in his show.

These two plays were like day and night, in terms of how different they were from one another, both in terms of quality and subject matter. In the case of Mr. Damiano’s play, I do hope that this isn’t the last that we hear of this show, as I anticipate that the political climate will ensure that it remains as relevant as ever, for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, I’m curious to know if Ms. Zhulina’s play is similar to most of her other works, or if this is just one weak outing out of other stronger ones, given her past history as a writer. In any case, for now, I look forward to seeing another week’s worth of shows at the Downtown Urban Arts Festival, and seeing how they compare to what I’ve seen here thus far…

“Sublet” and “American Tranquility” each ran for one night only at the Downtown Urban Arts Festival on April 18th. For more information on upcoming events at this festival, please visit www.duafnyc.com.