Sunday, July 31, 2016

42. Review: SUMMER SHORTS 2016: SERIES A (seen July 28)

"These Shorts Fall Short" 
Stars range from 5-1.
The annual Summer Shorts Festival of New American Short Plays has returned to 59E59 Theaters for its tenth year with its standard offering of six plays spread over two programs, Summer Shorts 2016: Series A and Summer Shorts 2016: Series B. I’ll be seeing the B program next week; hopefully, it’ll offer a more exciting lineup than does A.

In recent years, the one-act play has become more common Off Broadway than multi-act plays; one-acts often show up on Broadway as well. These, however, are usually 80-90 minutes in length and some go on without an intermission for nearly two hours. Those on display at 59E59, then, are smartly dubbed “short plays,” and typically run between 20 and 30 minutes, roughly the time of an average TV episode. (The Series A program runs 80 intermissionless minutes.) Perhaps because of the camera’s flexibility, television has come to seem more adept at creating half-hour dramas than the stage, where playwrights struggle to overcome the constraints of time and space in forging engrossing narratives and characters.

The three plays in Series A are Cusi Cram’s “The Helpers,” Neil LaBute’s “After the Wedding,” and A. Rey Pamatmat’s “This Is How it Ends.” All are performed on Rebecca Lord-Surratt’s elegantly simple unit set using translucent upstage screens that can be pivoted to form varying backgrounds. As the audience waits for the show to begin, a time-lapse film shows the construction of the set, the kind of thing now popular on YouTube videos shared on Facebook. Apart from LaBute's engrossing but flawed play, the video is the most fulfilling part of the production.
Maggie Burke, David Deblinger. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
"The Helpers," directed by Jessi D. Hill, is set around the timeworn presence of a park bench, this one in the West Village on a chilly winter day. There are two characters, one, the feisty Dr. Jane Friedman, is a fashionably dressed, middle-aged, retired therapist. The other is her former patient of fifteen years, Nate (David Deblinger), a hapless guy in his forties who’s decided to give up his sessions. The recently widowed Jane, who’s also lost her beloved cat, Bijou, has taken to talking to the departed kitty even in public places. The play watches patient and therapist essentially change places.
David Deblinger, Maggie Burke. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The piece, which is vague about why Nate and Jane are meeting, of all places, outdoors on a winter day, is sporadically amusing, but its tone is flat, its humor dull, and its performances unilluminating. It’s the kind of thing one could imagine being done brilliantly as a Nichols and May duologue. Here, it’s simply forgettable.
Elizabeth Masucci, Frank Harts. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Everyone will have their own take on which play is the evening's standout; for me it's LaBute’s “After the Wedding,” directed by Maria Mileaf. The well-known LaBute, a regular presence on these programs, offers a tantalizing piece that turns out to be more a trick than a convincing drama, but his gift for sharply observed, often humorous dialogue is enough to carry you along. A young husband and his wife, nicely limned by Frank Harts and Elizabeth Masucci, occupy chairs isolated from one another as they each address some unseen person--a marriage counselor, perhaps--in front of them. Although they’re not supposed to be speaking in each other’s presence what each says is closely related to the previous speaker’s words. 

At first, they talk about their relationship, their carefully planned wedding, and how they feel about one another; it all seems perfectly normal and some of it, especially when sex is the subject, is raunchily funny. But then they speak about an event that happened as they headed for their honeymoon in the Hamptons. The light, conversational tone remains intact but we suspect a deep sense of guilt beneath their veneer of normalcy. And that, perhaps, explains their spatial isolation and failure to speak directly to one another.

LaBute entices you into these characters’ lives with his humorous depiction of an ordinary young couple explaining their relationship; then he slyly steers his dramatic vehicle into much darker territory. He also lures you into contemplating how you might have responded to the dilemma faced by his characters. Still, since there’s no way the first half of the play hints at what’s coming, the smoke and mirrors dramaturgy makes you feel you’ve been taken for a ride.
Chinaza Uche, Kerry Warren. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Closing out the evening is “This Is How it Ends,” an exaggeratedly absurdist whatchamacallit about the end of the world that drags on like an overextended “Saturday Night Live” sketch. With six actors, this theatrical oddity, which stumps even the usually inventive director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, is the longest play on the program, and has the largest cast of characters and most elaborate costumes (designed by Amy Sutton) and effects (surrealistic projections by Daniel Mueller).
Sathya Sridharan, Patrick Cummings. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Playwright Pamatmat, who asks those who “don’t get it” to watch Gregg Araki’s Teen Apocalypse Trilogy, notes in his script: “TIME: Felch me; PLACE: Eat my fuck.” His potty-mouthed characters are Annie Christmas (Kerry Warren), a cutie who reveals herself as the Anti-Christ (boomingly amplified voice and all; sound design by Nick Moore)); her gay, African-American roommate, Jake (Chinaza Uche); and four others representing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, all portrayed with cartoonish distortion and satiric intention in the manner of the Theatre of the Ridiculous: Death (Nadine Malouf), Pestilence (Sathya Sridharan), Famine (Rosa Gilmore), and War (Patrick Cummings).
Sathya Sridharan, Nadine Malouf, Patrick Cummings. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
I’m aware that there’s an audience for this kind of thing. I’m also aware that there’s a critic somewhere pondering the appropriateness of using one of Pamatmat’s scene-setting phrases as a response.
Rosa Gilmour, Sathya Sridharan, Patrick Cummings. Photo: Carol Rosegg.


59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through September 3