Theater review by Raven Snook
A meditation on the often arbitrary lines that divide us, Thaddeus Phillips’s well-meaning 17 Border Crossings is a travelogue that barely gets beyond checkpoints: Its focus is on the challenges of crossing over. On a mostly empty stage, using his talents for languages and broad caricature (along with a mobile lighting rig and a smattering of props), the playwright-performer touches on more than two dozen cultures from five continents as he juxtaposes the excursions of a privileged traveler—whom the script calls the Passenger—with the bleak realities of war, poverty and tyranny that afflict the locals. It's an impressive feat of creativity and endurance, if not a consistently engaging one.
While many of the tales seem drawn from a mix of news reports and personal experience, Phillips frequently speaks in the second person, implicating the audience in the Passenger’s adventures. The stories are told clearly but not always evocatively. The Passenger debating between in-flight rom-coms to watch en route from Angola to London while a desperate stowaway meets his end in the plane's wheel well is disturbing; the Passenger tripping on ayahuasca with a shaman in Brazil is indulgent. The more whimsical anecdotes, such as one dealing with an ignorant Newark customs agent, feel especially flimsy, and after a while the journey loses momentum.
A last-minute replacement in New York Theatre Workshop's season, 17 Border Crossings might seem to have been inspired by current geopolitical crises like Brexit and the Great Wall of Trump, but Phillips and his wife and director, Tatiana Mallarino, have been touring with the show for years. When it last played New York City in 2015, the world was a different place, and despite some timely additions—notably a chaotic 2019 crossing between Venezuela and Colombia—the show too rarely seems urgent. Unlike some of the born-on-the-wrong-side folks he meets along the way, it's clear that the Passenger, with his U.S. passport, will always make it through. Where's the drama in that?
New York Theatre Workshop (Off Broadway). By Thaddeus Phillips. Directed by Tatiana Mallarino. With Phillips. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.