Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The country in your pocket

I took a train trip across the country and back last night, visiting 24 cities and covering 9,000 miles. And I did it in under an hour thanks to the masterful storytelling of Jack Finnegan who wrote, directed and performed City Love Song. He’ll take this one-man show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest cultural extravaganza, next month.

Gems like this pass through New York each July on their way to Scotland, taking up residence at 59E59 Theaters as part of its East to Edinburgh series. Their gift is their simplicity and originality.

Finnegan, 32, in jeans and orange T-shirt, is alone on stage with nothing but a stool and his energy and natural animation. We begin our journey with him at Penn Station in New York and head north to Boston as he brings to life the people on the train and the world outside. We enjoy a stroll through the cobblestone streets and a rest in the Boston Commons before boarding the train again to pass through the small towns of the Rust Belt, with their tiny brick train stations and people going about their business unaware; we head to Detroit and Chicago. We have a beer at a working class bar in Fargo, see a sign on a train stop in the prairie reading “Station open midnight to 5 a.m.” That’s when trains pass through this part of the world, so far from the point of departure in the city that never sleeps.

Next: the Dakotas, Montana, the country rolls by, one place at a time. As he says, “You can never see what might be coming in a train, only what’s right in front of you.” Just what’s right outside Finnegan’s window.

The beauty of the Pacific northwest: “Puget Sound teaches patience. Let it,” he says. “Reading a book would constitute a crime.” But after a bit, “there comes a time you wonder if it will ever end.”

Finally we “slide into Seattle,” which seems to be his favor spot on the journey. “Something about Seattle raised my cheer. Everywhere I turned people were smiling.” Even the panhandlers as he walked through the city. “Seattle always left me with a reason to smile.”

Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, onward through the drab miles of scrub and bush in west Texas. Finnegan offers humorous accounts of trying to navigate around Austin, dogging cars because of the scarcity of sidewalks, resorting to walking in a drainage ditch because he preferred to hoof it rather than take a taxi.

“Nobody walks in Texas unless they’re walking to their cars.”

Roll on through the Bible Belt, get dropped off at a station outside Charlotte at 1 a.m. to curl up on a bench and wait for the connecting train to D.C. due to arrive at 7. Tired but changed, we arrive back in NYC after 13 weeks of travel, “with the country in your pocket.”

As vast as was the physical space Finnegan covered, I felt an unexpected intimacy with the people and places we had visited, a feeling of being a community rather than one big country. And I did feel I had visited; I left the theatre with the joy of having had a really good time. Finnegan has a journalist’s gift for observation. He put it to good use creating this show after his creative writing nonfiction graduate study plans fell through. With a notebook full of observations and reflections, which he didn’t think would constitute a book, and his acting background and an undergraduate degree in philosophy, he created this enchanting performance piece.

I’m sorry last night was the final of three performances in New York. I would like you to have seen it. Visit Finnegan’s site,, to learn his plans after Edinburgh.

The seventh annual East To Edinburgh festival takes place through Sunday at 59E59 Theaters (between Park and Madison Avenues). Created as a way to help shows get on their feet before flying off to Scotland, the festival simulates the same production constraints shows experience during the Edinburgh Festival, while giving them a space to fine-tune their productions.

Ticket prices range from $10 to $20 ($7 - $15.50 for 59E59 Members) and may be purchased by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or online 


Zephyros said...

Ms. Blaney, I am delighted and honored by this lovely post. A friend passed it along, and without your objection, I will be passing a link along to friends, families, potential attendees and the press!

Thank you for you kind words. I am so glad to have had you in attendance, and especially pleased that you felt you had visited our vast American community.

I open in Edinburgh in a little less than four hours...your post has given my butterfly-infested stomach a much needed calming boost!

Many thanks, and best wishes to you.

Jack Finnegan

Andy Welton said...

I cannot wait to see this performance!! It sounds absolutely wonderful