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A CurtainUp Review
Off the Meter, On the Record
Driving New York Crazy for 35 Years

Familiar neighborhoods
are strangers again.
The Twin Towers used to be two,
now it's only one.
Museum mile on the upper east side
now competes with misery mile:
the Holocaust Museum, Irish Famine Memorial,
and America's own 9/11.
What happened to my city?.

.— excerpt from the poem, "What Happened to My City?" written by John McDonagh at a PEN workshop for cab drivers.
John McDonagh (Photo: Carol Rosegg
Written and performed by John McDonagh, and genially directed by Ciaran O'Reilly, this autobiographical solo show gives you a behind-the-wheel look at New York City as viewed by a yellow cab driver.

McDonagh is no stranger to a New York stage. He's performed at many of the city's comedy venues, at the New York City Fringe Festival 2016 and is a frequent presence on the airwaves. According to his program bio Off the Meter, On the Record represents the "culmination of a thirty-five year career of driving a yellow cab while trying to make a difference in the world."

The play appropriately starts with a video of a taxi moving through New York City, with a blaring traffic report from 1010 WINS. As that report slowly fades out, McDonagh dives into his monologue — a combination of personal history, cabbie stories and social commentary.

We learn that he's the son of Irish immigrants, graduated from Grover Cleveland High School in Queens in 1973, did a stint with the United States Army in Germany during the Vietnam War, and returned to New York City on that memorable day when the Daily News put on its front page: "Ford to City: Drop Dead."

With the Daily News' headline projected on a screen upstage, McDonagh informs us that he didn't let the front-page news dampen his spirits. Instead, as many young New Yorkers did during the economic downturn, he went and got his hack license.

Happily, this is no over-reaching play. McDonagh simply wants to set the record straight here and convey what it's like to be a yellow cab driver in the city. That takes us back to the 70's when he drove a checker cab that had no radio, power windows, power locks, or air conditioning —inn short, a no-frills, high-stress job.

With a stone-like expression reminiscent of Buster Keaton, McDonagh expounds driving in gridlock, being chary of red-light cameras and dealing with drunks who vomit in the backseat and at times getting very pregnant women to the hospital in time.

The monologue ripples on. The video projections that complement his patter glow softly, mostly evoking a New York City of yesteryear.

Our narrator sprouts opinions on many subjects, including the horses in Central Park. He even claims that those horses have an easier life and more perks than the city's cab drivers. Sound preposterous? Not at all. McDonagh gets his point across with two brain-teasing questions: "When is the last time you heard of a horse being shot in the head in Central Park? And when did you see someone jumping out of the carriage and running into the Plaza Hotel to avoid paying the fare?" Granted, McDonagh isn't the first to cite that cab driving in New York City can be downright dangerous, but he surely communicates it more colorfully than anybody else.

While these urban anecdotes have their serious moments, a note of humor is injected into all. That includes an encounter with a homeless person foisted upon him by a cop. Then there's one about a drug addict in the Alphabet Jungle (think Lower East Side around Avenues A, B, and C) and another with a crazy old matron on the Upper East Side.

While there's no self-indulgent name-dropping, we do get to hear about how McDonagh became Stephen Fry's personal escort through Gotham during the filming of his BBC documentary Stephen Fry's America. Rather than taking Fry on a sanitized tour of city landmarks, he took him to a "social club" in Queens with a reception committee headed by the locals (think the mob): Joey Wu Tang, Jacky The Hammer, Lucky Lotto, and Mama Scunge. Fry not only won a BAFTA award for his documentary but later recycled his American travels in a book, and when the book was serialized in England, the media spotlighted the New York episode: "Stephen Fry goes to New York to meet the Goodfellows and comes out singing like a Soprano."

In Off the Meter, there's a built-in tension between what could be called cab driving in the 20th century and that which is characteristic of the 21st century. This cultural tension is captured in McDonagh's poem, "What Happened to My City?" written at a PEN workshop for cab drivers. PEN affectionately dubbed the crew the "Bards of the Gridlock," and invited McDonagh to read his poem on the historic stage of Cooper Union. He recites it again for Irish Rep audiences.

While Off the Meter doesn't transcend the limitations of the one-person genre, it's a gem that takes us from the world of the checker cab to the land of Uber, Lyft, and Gett. Subtitled Driving New York Crazy for 35 Years, it's ironically a very sane and novel look at the Big Apple from a seasoned taxi driver's perspective.

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Off the Meter, On the Record
Written and performed by John McDonagh
Directed by Ciaran O'Reilly
Sets: Charlie Corcoran
Sound: M. Florian Staab
Lighting: Michael O'Connor
Projection: Chris Kateff
Stage Manager: April Ann Kline
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. Tickets: $50. Phone 212-727-2737 or visit
From 10/06/17; opening 10/17/16; closing 11/18/17.
Wednesday @ 8pm; Thursday @7pm; Friday @ 8pm; Saturday @ 8pm; Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday matinees @ 3pm
Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 10/12/17

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