- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 6, 2001

Cherry Red Productions and the Source Theatre Company are still celebrating the Christmas season, with an extended run of "Hellcab" — their nugget of warped holiday cheer.

Will Kern's drama brings the audience along on a Chicago cabby's shift a few days before Christmas as he hauls his fares about, in a rapid-fire series of episodes. The most inviting place for baring the soul — next to a barstool and a confessional — seems to be the back seat of a cab.

The usual suspects show up: a grab bag of bickering couples and assorted wackos, the over-sexed and drug-fueled and emotionally unstable. But with strong performances and crisp dialogue, the production avoids falling into caricature.

Craig Housenick — hunched over the wheel and bundled up in a down jacket — plays the Cab Driver. He conveys the cabby's feelings with a barely perceptible change of expression, a slight wince.

Sometimes sarcastic, occasionally conscience-stricken and mostly weary, the Cab Driver seems pained by — or for — his fares. But he also receives advice and therapy from them in addition to doling it out, and all his customers leave a mark on him. This is ironic, because he hates to be physically touched by them.

The other six actors pull off the 30 characters who drift in and out of the Cab Driver's orbit with skill and humanness.

Raymond Harris, all fiery indignation and profanity, is a black cabby who won't pick up his own people; John Mills is a coke-addled addict searching for his next score.

Diane Cooper plays two or three women of painful vulnerability — a gullible receptionist being used sexually and a woman devastated by her boyfriend's jokes about her. Even Miss Cooper's Stoned Girl, in an episode played for laughs, has a melancholy about her.

A generous dose of comic relief throughout the play keeps it from getting too heavy, notably Jam Donaldson's pregnant woman: Wracked with labor pains, she hates the father-to-be and the cabby and the small talk between them. She threatens she's going to throw up, then belligerently denies it.

Some characters veer into cliche: the callow, sexually predatory businessman who turns out to be a stingy tipper (and a racist to boot), or the obnoxious, drunken New Yorkers screaming out the window. But most give an honest glimpse of who they would be after stepping out of the cab.

Mr. Kern's dialogue captures the language these people live in. The exchanges between a mistreated woman and her no-account boyfriend are completely different from those between a religious couple heading to church. Each episode feels authentic because it sounds so genuine.

The play's setting is nothing more elaborate than the makeshift framework of a car and a couple of benches for its seats. The spareness works well, but too little use is made of the sound effects.

The relentless howling of the wind is heard only before the production begins, as the audience is filing in. The noise of heavy traffic, which gives the feeling of being at once part of everything and utterly isolated from it — what the play is really about — is used only between episodes. Even the disembodied voice of the dispatcher crackles over the radio just once.

The play is at its weakest in its ending, which feels too good — too neat — for what's come before it.

Although we have caught only snippets of the Cab Driver's life, a "big revelation" is made when he opens up to a cheerful architect taking a break from work to get some food, the most normal customer he meets. Then this cabby, who hates contact with his passengers, finds himself extending his hand in gratitude.

Too grim to be called a joy ride, "Hellcab" is an absorbing trip into the shadows, one that has too bright a light at the end of the tunnel.

{*}{*}{*}WHAT: "Hellcab"WHERE: Source Theatre, 1835 14th Street NWWHEN: 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, through Jan. 20TICKETS: $15PHONE: 202/675-3071

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