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Empire Travel Agency Review: Theater As Adventure Thriller

ETA3 at Fulton subway station

At times during “Empire Travel Agency,” a theatrical adventure that takes place in some dozen different downtown locales, it feels as if you’re in a Bourne thriller, sharing escapades with Matt Damon, before his car plunges off the bridge or bursts into flames. This is the first play for which I’ve ever had to sign a waiver acknowledging that it “subjects me to the possibility of injury, illness and/or death.” (“And/or”? Can you be both ill AND dead?)

There is no real danger in the show, other than getting winded from climbing up and down various staircases, or the occasional confusion at the labyrinthine story. “Empire Travel Agency” is fun, and clever, and something more than that — an impressive if imperfect example of the kind of theater that is revitalizing the art form.

A cast of more than two dozen, all members of the Woodshed Collective theater company, backed by an army of designers and crew, presents this elaborate, two-hour theater piece for just four audience members at a time. Yes, you read that correctly. What’s more, it’s free.

Is it any surprise then that it’s virtually sold out for its entire run through September 27? (Virtually because there’s a waiting list if one or more of the four audience members is a no-show, and there are also five “luxury benefit performances” one can attend for a sizeable donation.)

Will it extend?

Let’s hope so.

The show begins when the four audience members are asked to assemble at a dark corner in the financial district near a telephone booth. So meticulous is the production that the pay telephone actually works (it also has a sticker on it that says “This Phone Is Tapped.”) We receive a telephone call from one Rhonda Cadwallader instructing us where to go. We walk a few blocks away, up an escalator, is one Elevated Acre, a little-known (and actual) plaza with a wonderful view of the East River. There we meet a bow-tied musical trio called The Avant Guardesmen who serenade us, and one Dr. Bidity, who welcomes us to “the Hidden City Excursion. Empire Travel Agency’s initiation into the wonders and enigmas of this thriving metropolis.” As he discourses eruditely on other “hidden gems” in the city and digresses into a tale of Mongols, suddenly the three musicians cough up blood and drop dead. Dr. Biddity makes a hasty exit, abandoning the four theatergoers while promising to come back for us, which he never does.

Two shady-looking characters named Mort and Frank then appear from the next lawn over, beckoning us to have a seat. It’s from Mort that we first hear about Ambros, a secret shadowy substance whose powers we learn more and more about in bits and pieces as the night progresses. It is Ambros that made New York City great, and it’s in danger of leaving the city. There is a crucial auction involving the recipe for Ambros at the end of the night. Mort seems to think that we four audience members are agents in training for the Empire Travel Agency, and he tries to enlist us in his cause, which – as is the case with many of the characters to follow – isn’t completely clear, but is unmistakably diabolical somehow. Frank, a dese and dems New Yorker, then walks with us down to the other side of the plaza, to a waiting SUV, and takes us for a ride.

I’d like to single out Roger Lirtsman who (I learned the next day) portrays Frank, not just for his skills at improvisation, but for being the most convincingly scary character we meet. (One word of advice – Don’t tell him you’ve ever been to Winnipeg!)

We eventually effect our escape from Frank, with the help of some text messages from Rhonda (this is one show where you must keep your cell phone on), and by the in-person guidance of one Betsy, a nervous blonde agent from ETA (which is what we start to call Empire Travel Agency.) We are rushed into one adventure after another, in a variety of locations (few as great a hidden gem as that first plaza, which would have been something of a disappointment if we had been given a moment to think about it), meeting characters that are straight out of espionage novels.

The cast is uniformly adept in interacting with each individual theatergoer improvisationally, but “Empire Travel Agency” is fully scripted. Playwright Jason Gray Platt packs it with subtly hilarious digressions and throwaway wit. At one point, an artist named St. Catherine tells us:

“I thought that maybe there was something to the idea of raising a child as a kind of work of art. A child is something you create and presumably nourish? It grows, it changes in size and color, right? I thought there was something to that idea, but it turned out to be very stupid….There was no artistic payoff, only sacrifice.”

St. Catherine turns out to be Betsy’s mother. Later the rebellious Betsy says:

“I was thrown out of PS 7, 9, 147, 563, St. Francis Academy, Brooklyn Tech, the Fresh Air Fund, and I was expelled from Columbia University for heckling Edward Said. I’m the one who started calling it How-ston Street, just because I could.”

If these New York-centric allusions are too obscure for you, they are a school primer compared to the deliberately impenetrable esoterica that runs throughout the play, and that piles up a bit too high by its conclusion.  Of course, some of the most popular mysteries, like the Big Sleep, are also hopelessly convoluted, but at least the audience for them is sitting comfortably in a chair at home or in the movie theater. They’re not trying to follow the dialogue on a car radio, or chasing a Peter Lorre-like figure in the subway (yes, one of the locales of the play is the number 5 train), or rushing up and down an abandoned building, or making their way through darkened streets following scribbled-down instructions that the characters quickly rip up or burn with a lighter. Or, most exhausting of all, responding to the characters’ prompts as if we truly are agents with ETA. Maybe, by the end of the evening (as we’re shown to the actual restaurant Ambrose where the cast congregates), we are.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.

Empire Travel Agency

A phone booth, two cars, the Lexington Avenue subway, and a dozen other locations

Conceived and designed by Woodshed Collective

Text by Jason Gray Platt

Directed by Teddy Bergman, executive producer Mikhael Tara Garver

Costume design by Becky Lasky, lighting design by MIKE INWOOD, AMANDA CLEGG LYON & GILLIAN WOLPERT, sound design by Will Pickens and Mike Feld, technology designer Eamon O’Connor. Dramaturg: Jeremiah Mathew Davis.

Cast:

DEALER . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ASHLEY BIEL

CORBUSIER . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . JONATHAN BOCK

BETSY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . HAVILAH BREWSTER

Mr. SMITH . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . T. RAY CAMPBELL

JT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . MATT CITRON

MORT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ROBERT CACCOMO

DAVE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . GARDINER COMFORT

LINUS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . TODD D’AMOUR

PILFER . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . LILA DONNOLO

LUCHESI . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . JAMIE EFFROS

GARY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . RYAN GARBAYO

CORBUSIER COVER . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . JOSHUA WILLIAM GEL

St. CATHERINE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . NICOLE GOLDE

Ms. SMITHE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . JUDITH GREENTREE

BETSY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . KERRY IPEMA

CAMEL . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . EDDY LEE

FRANK . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ROGER LIRTSMAN

BETSY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ROSALIE LOWE

VAIL/BETSY COVER . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ADDIE MORENO

Ms. SMITHER . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ANNA O’DONOGHUE

SMITTY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . JUSTIN PEREZ

St. CATHERINE COVER . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ELLIOTTE SIMIAN

NANAIMO . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . STEPHEN STOUT

RHONDA/DR. BIDITY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . PHILLIP TARATULA

Mr. SMIT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . BEN VIGUS

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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