Sunday, August 2, 2015

46 (2015-2016): Review of SUMMER SHORTS SERIES B (seen July 30, 2015)

“Three Up, Three Down”
Stars range from 5-1.
Something there is that seems to make writing quality one-act (or “short”) plays very difficult, even for playwrights with established track records for longer plays. The SUMMER SHORTS FESTIVAL OF NEW AMERICAN SHORT PLAYS, to give it its full title, is presently offering two three-play bills—SERIES A and SERIES B—at 59E59 Theaters. In the former, only Neil LaBute’s 10K comes near to passing muster. I’ve got baseball on my mind these days, so I’ll take SERIES A’s .333 batting average any day over SERIES B, a 75-minute program that, to continue the baseball metaphor, barely makes it over the Mendoza line; these plays, produced by producing director J.J. Kandel’s Throughline Artists, seem more like they’re playing in the single-A minors than in the major leagues.
Lauren Blumenfeld, Alfred Narcisco. Photo:  Carol Rosegg.
Leading off is Lucy Thurber’s “UNSTUCK,” directed by Laura Slavia, in which a depressed couch potato named Pete (Alfredo Narcisco) is the target of three different women’s attempts—each in her own scene—to please him on his birthday. First is his kooky sister, Jackie (Lauren Blumenfeld), who tries to entertain him with a defiantly amateurish tap-dancing routine. She confronts him with her “warrior”-like determination to make choices, even those that might embarrass her, versus his stuck-in-a-rut indecisiveness.  Next up is a married friend, Sara (Carmen Zilles), a Latina beauty who sings “Happy Birthday” in English and Spanish. A therapist-in-training, she’s also an annoying narcissist who talks mainly about herself. Whereas Jackie displays awful dancing skills, the same can be said of Sara’s singing talents. Why Pete, or anybody, for that matter, would endure her company, is unexplained. Finally, Pete’s girlfriend, Deirdre (KK Moggie), more grounded than the others, arrives. The play now shifts radically to become a clichéd domestic drama, with romanticized dialogue, about their marital future.
Lauren Blumenthal, Alfred Narcisco. Photo: Alfred Narcisco.
Even actors who’ve shone elsewhere can do little to make this dull play convincing; it has neither tension nor wit, and does little to explain who Pete is, or why he’s depressed. The scenes with Jackie and Sara are more like a playwright’s doodling than organic necessities.
Carmen Zilles, Alfred Narcisco. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
KK Moggie, Alfred Narcisco. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Even weaker is Robert O’Hara’s “BUILT,” a two-hander that strains for a sexually challenging, slightly off-kilter tone by focusing on a confrontation between Mrs. Back (Merritt Janson), an outwardly conservative 35-year-old woman, and Mason (Justin Bernegger), a 25-year-old manwhore (or so he seems). The premise is that Mrs. Back preyed sexually on Mason 10 years before when she was his high school teacher, was prosecuted as a Child Sex Offender (although other teachers were similarly pedophilic), and now appears to be seeking a professional encounter with his grown up persona. Mason’s own responsibility for what transpired is alluded to, but rather than delving into the truth of what transpired, the play shifts into an unconvincing role-playing mode between raunchy teacher and sexed-up teenager before arriving at its contrived conclusion.
Justin Bernegger, Merritt Janson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The acting (especially Mr. Bernegger’s) is inadequate, the ponderously atmospheric staging (by Mr. O’Hara) forced, and the dramatic development shallow. (59E59, by the by, has suddenly become a locus for male nudity, what with Mr. Bernegger baring it all in this play and Quinn Franzen doing the same downstairs in THREESOME. Mr. Bernegger, however, seems much more constrained about it than his fellow thespian.)

Closing out the program is Stella Fawn Ragsdale’s “LOVE LETTERS TO A DICTATOR,” the best written but least dramatic play on view. It’s a promising, but thin, one-woman piece, directed by Logan Vaughn, in which Ms. Ragsdale (played by Colby Minifie) is herself the single character, a Tennessee farm girl who begins an epistolary relationship with North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il, in 2011, the year he died. She’s moved to New York to be a writer but lives on a Hudson Valley farm because she feels out of place in the city.

The production, which often has Stella playing popular tunes by Elvis (Kim loved the King, whom Stella claims was her second cousin) and Dolly on a battered old radio, is done straight, with no winking at its ironies, especially given the personal nature of what Stella writes in nine letters to one of the world’s most hated rulers, whom she thinks is misunderstood; Ms. Ragsdale talks about her relationship with her ailing mother, contrasts her concerns about her own goodness and personal responsibility with what she deems to be Kim’s, and mildly admonishes him for his behavior. The only notion we have of his responses, however, comes from her own letters. Throughout the piece, Ms. Vaughn has Stella hang her handwritten letters up like laundry on a clothes line. Don't ask me why.

 “LOVE LETTERS TO A DICTATOR” is momentarily surprising for its whimsical concept; Stella’s letters, though, never morph into a play. Ms. Ragsdale’s writing has a wry, charmingly quirky, sometimes even poetic tone, but its humor is pale and its ideas only vaguely engaging. Ms. Minifie is competent as Stella but, with such low stakes, there are few reasons to give her one's heart. 

Three up, three down.

Other Viewpoints:
Talkin' Broadway
Bob's Theater Blog
New York Times

59E59 Theaters
59 East Fifty-Ninth Street, NYC
Through August 29

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