Reeling in the Ears

From cramped subway cars to open office layouts, from sidewalk cellphones to communal restaurant tables, propinquity—not to mention proclivity—has made us a city of eavesdroppers. As writer-performer Alice Eve Cohen well knows, apartment life (especially tenement apartment living) is an overhearer's paradise. In Thin Walls (78th Street Theatre Lab), Cohen listens in on 12 residents of a rent-controlled building as they interact with the young married woman of apartment 303.

The tenants are a typically eccentric lot: an Israeli cellist, a lovestruck handyman, a Trinidadian beautician, an amiable hippie-turned-banker, etc. Joe, a shirtless loanshark, stars in the first of 37 short scenes. Greeting the newlyweds, he leers, "We got thin walls . . . if you know what I mean," then adds helpfully, "If you smell smoke don't worry. My wife likes to make toast." Cohen smartly chooses to never explicitly map the close quarters. Rather, as the play progresses, she allows the relationships and conflicts to gradually emerge. After adopting a child, the marriage in 303 starts to sour, and there's talk of transforming the building into housing for the homeless. That debate in particular lends the play some structure, rescuing it from being just a cute excuse to show off a talent for accents.

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Cohen translates herself from one character to another with ease, doubtless with the aid of director Elizabeth Margid. This renders the design elements almost superfluous. But Rick Martin's lighting does a fine job of delineating the many residences. Running just over an hour, Thin Wallsis nearly as slender as its titular masonry. Since the versatile Cohen doesn't wear out her welcome, she should consider extending her lease.

 
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