Sunday, July 30, 2017

48 (2017-2018): Review: SUMMER SHORTS 2017: SERIES A (seen July 26, 2017)

"Death, God, and the Sexes"



The traditional “one-act” play, the kind that runs 20 minutes to a half hour, as opposed to the increasingly common variety that can last as long as two intermissionless hours, gets only rare exposure on New York’s main stages. Thanks, however, to 59E59 Theatres, local theatergoers have an annual opportunity to indulge in a half-dozen of these “short plays,” produced in two three-play programs designated as Summer Shorts: Series A and Series B.

These constitute the 11th season of 59E59’s “Festival of New American Short Plays,” founded by actor J.J. Kandel, the producing artistic director. He can be seen in a brief, pre-show documentary performing in “10K,” a Neil LaBute play from the 2015 Summer Shorts, as part of a project to film these plays by the Stage and Screen Initiative.

My general reaction to the previous five seasons of Summer Shorts has been on the tepid side, few, if any, of the offerings rising to an A-grade level. This year’s Series A, though, is a vast improvement, its plays including Melissa Ross’s “Jack,” a bittersweet, park-bench comedy about a recently divorced couple mourning a pet’s death; Alan Zweibel’s “Playing God,” a familiar farce about God coming to earth to teach someone a lesson; and Graham Moore’s “Acolyte,” an intellectually engaging drawing-room sex comedy satirizing the ideas of Ayn Rand. I’d grade them B+ for “Jack,” B-/C+ for “Playing God,” and A for “Acolyte.”

Providing a suitably neutral background for the evening is Rebecca Lord-Surratt’s box set of white walls accented by wooden strips, with Greg MacPherson’s repertory lighting scheme flexible enough to serve each play appropriately. Amy Sutton’s costumes are fine, while Nicholas Hussung’s projections and Nick Moore’s sound design serve each show well.
Quincy Dunn-Baker, Claire Karpen. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
“Jack” features George (Quincy Dunn-Baker, think Oscar Isaac) and Maggie (Claire Karpen, think Mary-Louise Parker), an attractive, recently divorced, late-30s couple meeting at the inevitable bench, this one near the dog run in a city park. Something sad has happened to Jack, their dog, and the bereaved Maggie is upset that, as per their legal agreement, George didn’t call her to let her know about it until it was too late. This precipitates a back-and-forth during which they squabble while also revealing their still underlying feelings for each other as, bit by bit, the details of Jack’s story are revealed and the consequences discussed.
Quincy Dunn-Baker, Claire Karpen. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Ross reveals an assured talent for sustaining interest in an essentially banal situation by how effectively she withholds information, letting it leak out in a sequence of amusingly endearing moments that offer unexpected touches and help both to bring George and Maggie together and push them apart. Much of the credit goes to the beautifully calibrated direction of Mimi O’Donnell, who extracts just the right tones of anger, recrimination, and guilt still burbling in the hearts of its protagonists. Dunn-Baker is appealingly frustrated in his attempts to explain himself, while Karpen embodies his high-strung ex with charming exasperation.
Quincy Dunn-Baker, Claire Karpen. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
At times, though, there’s a feeling that perhaps, in order to keep the play’s engine running, Maggie’s reactions go a tad too far. Also, given the play’s structural consistency, its conclusion is anticlimactic; that is, there’ve been so many expository surprises, the lack of a final one is disappointing. Everything’s so smoothly carried off, though, with humor and pathos, that these glitches seem relatively minor.
Dana Watkins, Flora Ruiz. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
My first impression of “Playing God” was that it’s like a highly polished “Saturday Night Live” sketch; only later did I discover that playwright Zweibel is an original SNL writer (not to mention for such other programs as “The Garry Shandling Show” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”). If you’re familiar with movies based on God being comically human, like the Oh, God! series starring George Burns, Bruce Almighty with Morgan Freeman, or even A Little Bit of Heaven with Whoopi Goldberg, you’ll have a fair idea of why Zweibel’s concept is so unsurprising.
Bill Buell, Dana Watkins. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In “Playing God” the title character is acted in robe and sandals by white-haired Bill Buell, whose eye bags are so prominent they must be bearing the burden of God’s big job. Dr. Scott Fisher (Dana Watkins), a smug obstetrician, decides to induce labor in a pregnant patient (Flora Diaz) earlier than she expected so he can go on a skiing trip. Learning this, God gets upset about mankind presuming to take godly matters into their own hands. Disregarding the opposition of his wryly skeptical assistant (Welker White), God visits the atheistic doctor and, using his heavenly powers, happily squashes him at a game of squash, then finishes him off in a way guaranteed to keep his patients at bay.
Bill Buell, Welker White. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Zweibel rings the concept for some worthy laughs, as, doubtless will other writers yet to come, but the formula of a comically irritated God teaching a faithless mortal a lesson is too familiar to warrant yet another go round. Luckily, Maria Mileaf’s lighthearted direction, Buell’s mischievous deity, Watkins’s egotistical physician, and White’s sarcastic assistant help the piece go down smoothly.

The most interesting play, “Acolyte,” by Graham Moore, bestselling novelist (The Last Days of Night) and Academy Award-winning screenwriter (The Imitation Game), takes on the daunting challenge of creating a half-hour play set at a small gathering in famed author and thinker Ayn Rand’s W. 36th Street apartment on November 6, 1954.
Sam Lilja, Orlagh Cassidy, Brontë England-Nelson, Ted Koch. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Rand, the heavily-accented, Russian-born screenwriter and novelist most famous for The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, is still revered by many who believe in her anti-religious dogma of reason over emotion and dependence on self over others, among them Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and a number of entrepreneurial big shots. She herself can be seen explaining her theories of Objectivism in a 1958 interview with Mike Wallace, worth watching if you see this play in which Orlagh Cassidy (a dead ringer, apart from the actress’s better teeth) is perfectly cast as the cool, calculating, and controlling philosopher.
Orlagh Cassidy, Brontë England-Nelson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Remaining at Rand’s apartment after she’s concluded a lecture to her followers are the 49-year-old Rand herself; her booze-loving, undereducated, 57-year-old husband, Frank O’Connor (Ted Koch); and another married couple, Nathaniel (Sam Lilja) and Barbara Branden (Brontë England-Nelson), 24 and 25, respectively. Both are Rand acolytes, Barbara being a grad student in philosophy. During the course of the evening the foursome discuss Rand’s controversial concepts, especially those relating to sexual relations, leading to dynamic confrontations when those concepts are put to the test.

Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, the latter having written the first biography of Rand, were well-known intellectuals and the situation in the play is based on their actual romantic/sexual associations with the philosopher. This material previously was dramatized in the 1999 movie The Passion of Ayn Rand, based on one of Branden’s books, starring Helen Mirren as Rand and Julie Delpy as Barbara.
Orlagh Cassidy, Brontë England-Nelson. Photo: Carol Rosegg
Moore does an excellent job of crafting an engrossing discussion drama exploring Rand’s provocative notions, keeping us involved even during a philosophical argument sparked by Barbara’s asking, “Does Aristotelian epistemology correct the problem of universals in Platonic realism?”

Director Alexander Dinelaris (Academy Award-winning screenwriter for Birdman) and his actors—especially Cassidy and England-Nelson—make the dialogue both accessible and compelling, with some really sharp give and take between Barbara and Ayn. “Acolyte” would be well worth seeing, even without the lighter fare preceding it.

With them, though, audiences will find that this edition of Summer Shorts provides a well-balanced, excellently acted and directed 90-minute destination for a summer night in Manhattan.


OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through September 2


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