The Emmett Robinson Theatre was far from full on the opening night of Edgar Oliver’s one-man show East 10th Street: Self Portrait with Empty House, which is a shame, but is also not that unexpected. From descriptions and videos, it was hard to tell if this was a multifaceted monologue like the earlier Spoleto treat County of Kings: The Beautiful Struggle or whether it was looser and less dynamic.
Though East 10th Street is obviously well rehearsed and professionally staged, the performance does ultimately come off more like a conversation. While some may favor this almost casual type of reminiscence, it’s a bit jolting at first, and the audience may need time to grow invested in the Big Apple-based storyteller.
At the start of the show, Oliver immediately tells how he ended up in the house on East 10th Street where he currently resides. He came to New York from Paris more than 30 years ago, and his sister Helen followed soon after. He was going to school at Columbia and found the rooming house by pure chance, a consequence of his wandering. He tells us of the other inhabitants (the super Mr. Supter, the elderly Frances, the alcoholic Donald, the midget Freddie, and the maybe Nazi Edwin). We hear multiple hilarious anecdotes of feces-hoarding and murder attempts and nutty disputes, as Oliver and his sister drink wine and attempt to survive. His life comes across as both comical and bittersweet.
Oliver, wearing black and lit in an almost spooky fashion, serves as an eccentric family member, sharing scary bedtime stories of the big city to a small-town audience. His voice, which seems odd upon first listen, becomes more rhythmic and enchanting when utilized for a performance. He matches it with a slow, expressive pantomime. It was like seeing a skilled Shakespearean actor take on the 20th century.
The story, however, felt a bit incomplete. Just as Oliver launched right into the show, he launched right out of it. We know what happened to a few of the characters, but then Oliver starts telling us about Oliver, bringing it into the “self portrait” the title promises us. We hear about his wandering, and about a particularly isolating incident that happened in his house after many of the other inhabitants, except for his sister, were already gone. While this adds an interesting perspective — we learn that Oliver fears that he’ll one day haunt his house, like his memories of his neighbors — it came at a time when the audience was more invested in the kooky characters.
It’s an interesting story, and Oliver is a natural storyteller. He just could have told us so much more. Helen, for example, is someone we know little about by the end of the show. If his goal was to leave the audience wanting more, it was definitely accomplished, but possibly at the audience’s expense.