I confess that when I heard about Thaddeus Phillips’ one-man show “17 Border Crossings,” which opened Monday at Off Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop, I suspected I would buckle in for a timely diatribe about illegal (or dubiously legal) immigration with graphic tales of hardship, particularly under the Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security.
But Phillips’ concerns are far more parochial, mostly centered on his own peripatetic travels around the globe as a theater performer and director. There’s the time he used a stick to beat off wild dogs from the back of a motorbike in Colombia. Or the time a stranger launched mysterious packages from the window of his train compartment after they’d crossed the Hungarian border into Serbia. Or the occasion when he and his Croatian girlfriend were deported from Bali because the border guards there didn’t recognize her passport from the then-brand-new former-Yugoslavian country of Croatia.
The better stories have nothing to do with Phillips — or an individual one suspects is Phillips but is officially billed as The Passenger. There’s the well-known and tragic tale of an Angolan who stows away in the wheel shaft of a British Airways flight to Heathrow. And another account of a bucket of KFC that’s couriered from Egypt into Gaza by underground tunnels.
But you’d be right to think this all sounds like something akin to an extreme-travel-themed edition of “The Moth Radio Hour,” a glorified podcast complete with fun facts that you can trot out at your next dinner party. (Did you know that Henry V is credited with inventing the passport — or that you can disable the latest version’s high-tech features with a spin through your microwave?)
Tatiana Mallarino’s clever staging and Phillips’ low-fi set design, which converts a horizontal light bar into everything from a train to a plane to various neon-lit interrogation rooms, lend a greater degree of theatricality to the proceedings. (Phillips was similarly clever with his staging of Edgar Allan Poe’s final days in the 2014 NYTW production “Red-Eye to Havre de Grace.”) The souped-up production can only do so much, though: Despite the 90-minute running time, you may find yourself counting down just how many more crossings there are still to go before the final curtain.
The bigger problem is that the baggage here is mostly of the carry-on variety. While Phillips is an engaging and nimble performer, drifting into the various languages and dialects of his interrogators, there can be something a little monotonous about the accumulation of stories where the details are interesting enough but the stakes stubbornly remain so low.
In fact, the closest we get to real hardships faced by modern refugees and immigrants (who are not blessed with U.S. passports) comes in an off-handed reference to a Syrian girl — “about my son’s age,” Phillips tells us — who clings to her father on the coast of Greece wearing the only life preserver on the ship that brought them. But that girl’s query about “Are we there yet?!” carries a very different weight — and one that Phillips prefers to observe only in passing.