Review: ‘Behind the City’ Immerses You in New York and Yourself

Posted June 19, 2018 8:51 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — It’s an Alfred Hitchcock moment on a Frank Capra kind of a night. You are standing on a downtown Manhattan street corner, not knowing where to go, when a gesturing hand steers your eyes upward. Your gaze is directed to a window, which frames a man and a woman in bed. They appear to be making love, but you sense a restless discontent.

This being New York City, some passers-by on this breezy evening simply pass by, minds buried in thoughts or cellphones. This being New York City, others stop and stare along with you.

They all move on, though. You stay right there, transfixed in voyeurism, until the woman in the window leaves the bed. A voice tells you to shift your attention to the man in the fedora who has materialized beside you. Evidently, he will take you where you need to be.

It is, at this point, about an hour into “Behind the City,” the latest immersive theater piece from the industriously inventive Third Rail Projects. Or maybe it’s half an hour, or an hour and a half.

Conventional clocks have a way of melting in this combination walking tour and voyage into the past. The history being investigated is both that of a city and of yourself — along with that of your date. It is highly advisable that you bring someone you like, if not love, along with you.

Sentimental journeys are a specialty of Third Rail Projects, whose other site-specific works include “Then She Fell,” a re-creation for grown-ups of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” and “Ghost Light,” a séance with phantoms of a Lincoln Center theater. But its latest venture, directed and designed by Zach Morris, would appear to be the most willfully nostalgic of all, asking you to ponder the streets not taken in a town with a cruel habit of erasing its past.

Subsidized by the Macallan brand of Scotch whisky, whose product may be imbibed via Technicolor drinks served during the evening, “Behind the City” is both one of the sweetest and most sophisticated date nights on offer in these early days of summer. Running during the two weekends between June 22 and July 1, the production is free, but with limited tickets available (at themacallanbehindthecity.com).

Admission is for two. And the friendship, or partnership, between you and your companion will serve as the emotional foundation for everything that follows.

In this sense, “Behind the City” differs from other, urban-themed environmental pieces I have known in London and New York, which were conceived as group tours or solo excursions. What this latest work shares with its predecessors is an insistence that you look — really look — at what’s around you, and realize afresh how all the city’s a stage.

In this case, that stage extends from the basement of a restaurant — where audience members are issued passports and a survival kit — to a series of carefully accessorized rooms in TriBeCa and open-air avenues and byways. By the end, especially if you’ve consumed those pretty cocktails, you will have trouble distinguishing fictive play from bona fide place.

The view changes, I gather, according to the time at which you arrive. But the themes — of might-have-been life stories, of places and people lost and found — remain the same.

They are conveyed via maps, letters and postcards; moody recitations heard through headphones and cellphones; several lovely interior landscapes; and some close encounters with willfully eccentric types, who include a team of fantastical telegraph operators and a heartbreakingly hopeful young man awaiting an assignation in a hotel room. Just so you know, this company’s performers have always been adept at assessing just how far they can push the boundaries between you and them.

You will, though, be asked to provide a certain amount of personal information in the early stages of your journey. And that information will be used, most cleverly, as the evening proceeds.

Is some of what happens a shade too precious for the more hard-bitten New Yorker? Possibly. But “Behind the City” is exceptionally ingenious in finding the symmetry within urban flux.

I found myself smiling as I entered a grimy but handsome old building — the same one where I’d glimpsed that pair of lovers in the window — when I heard A-ha’s irresistibly hooky pop hit “Take On Me” bubbling away.

“Is that too obvious a choice?” I thought to myself. It turned out not to be part of the production, just some music drifting into earshot from a passing car. New York City, after all, can be a most obliging co-star to its population of unwitting actors, who are always putting on a show.

Production Notes:

“Behind the City”

June 22-July 1 at Town Stages, Manhattan; themacallanbehindthecity.com. Running time: 2 hours.

Conceived and created by Zach Morris in collaboration with Third Rail Projects; music and sound by Sean Hagerty; “Come Running” composed by Andrea Lepcio and Russell Kaplan; illusions by Vinny DePonto; costumes by TJ Burleson; environments by Zach Morris; props by Michaela Whiting; lighting by Niko Tsocanos; digital technology by Joshua Dutton-Reaver and Alberto Denis; vocals by Elizabeth Carena; co-composer and guitar; Isaiah Singer; dramaturge, Niko Tsocanos; dialect coach, Rachel Hardin; stage manager, Kristina Vnook; production manager, Brittany Crowell. Presented by Third Rail Projects, Zach Morris, Tom Pearson, Jennine Willett, artistic directors.

Cast: Lia Bonfilio, Elizabeth Carena, Andrew Chapman, Vinny DePonto, Amy Gernux, Julia Kelly, Roxanne Kidd, Madison Krekel, Kevin Lowry, Justin Lynch, Rebekah Morin, Marissa Nielsen-Pincus, Emily Petry, Gwen Petry, Jessy Smith, Niko Tsocanos and Carlton Cyrus Ward.