BY JON CRONIN
Middle Village cabbie John McDonagh’s one-man play Off the Meter and On the Record has debuted to sold-out shows at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan.
McDonagh, a 35-year veteran of the city’s yellow taxi cab service, has taken the opportunity to get out from behind the driver’s seat and onto the stage, where he pontificates about his eclectic experiences with reality shows, famed British thespians, Middle Village tough guys and his support of Irish nationalists.
At the Irish Repertory’s basement theater, McDonagh paces a stage adorned with taxi cab parts while telling his stories. He arrives out of the darkness and begins his tale as if the audience just caught him at a pensive moment in his living room.
Onstage, McDonagh has a welcoming presence. When he tells a story about being interviewed in a studio at FoxNews in 2004 during the Republican National Convention, he expounded on his Cabbies Against Bush protest, during which he asked cab drivers to turn on their headlights during the day to metaphorically shine a light on the what then-President George W. Bush was doing in the Middle East.
“I don’t suppose they’re doing this in Boston at the Democratic National Convention,” the interviewer asked.
“I don’t know what they’re doing in Boston,” McDonagh retorted, “I drive a cab in New York City.”
The interviewer didn’t expect a cab driver to be informed or quick witted and the segment was cut from five minutes to one.
Realizing that he upset the interviewer, he was then afraid the news station would cancel its offer to drive him back to his home in Middle Village. He quickly left the studio and was pursued by FoxNews producers and security. He mimicked on stage what it was like trying to find his way out the door through the station’s byzantine cubicles.
McDonagh is in-part Alex Reiger, the snarky well-read cab driver played by Judd Hirsch in Taxi. He met his wife working for an Irish newspaper in Manhattan and is well aware of how the city has changed in the four decades that he’s been driving in the five boroughs. Yet, McDonagh is also part merry, mischievous Irishman, who delights in the strange misgivings around him and winks at the universe as he soldiers on through it all.
He recounts a time when he was saddled by the police with driving a homeless woman to a shelter on an early winter morning. At her destination, she told him that she liked the warmth of the cab and refused to get out. He removed her things for her and realized it was all she had. He co-opted a line by William Butler Yeats and said, “Too long a driving, makes a stone of the heart.”
McDonagh has an acute knack for storytelling and one gets the sense as he tells his tales that he also cares about the listener. As a driver with decades of service behind him, he also conveys that he cares for the people who are marginalized or viewed as victims. But he believes that that they shouldn’t be viewed as such as they have a point of view and sense of humor.
After the run of the play is over on Nov. 5, McDonagh confessed that, “Cinderella will be back in the cab.”
Until then, the show will be performed on Wednesdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.