Sunday, August 7, 2016

46. Review: SUMMER SHORTS 2016: SERIES B (seen August 4, 2016)

"Rebel Flags, Tragic Tramps, and Nuns on the Run"
Stars range from 5-1.
Series B, the second round in the 10th annual Festival of New American Short Plays at 59E59 Theaters, is a slight improvement over Series A, but still not enough to shout hosannas about a burst of new talent in short form dramaturgy. As in Series A, the first two plays are relatively straightforward and realistic, while the third is more fanciful. “This Is How It Ends,” the third play in Series A, proved that program’s downfall, though, while the play in that position in Series B, while far from perfect, is the evening’s savior.

The same simple unit setting designed by Rebecca Lord-Surratt used in Series A serves for all three plays, with just the barest of furnishings to represent the various locales. And once again, the program is preceded by a delightful stop-motion film of how the set was constructed and the lighting instruments hung.
Ruy Iskander, Suzette Azariah Gunn, Francesca Carpanini. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Idris Goodwin kicks off the evening with “Black Flag,” a socially conscious piece that could easily be given in a high school setting as a way of stimulating conversation about contemporary racial attitudes. The subject matter, centering on issues of flags and other symbols that bear potentially offensive messages, is certainly pertinent, what with recent controversies surrounding the flying of the Confederate flag over the state capitol in North Carolina, the six-pointed star used in a Trump anti-Clinton ad, and the current stir about the racist implications of the “Don’t Tread on Me” insignia.
Suzette Azaraiah Gunn, Ruy Iskander. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Goodwin’s play is set in a New York City college dorm occupied by two freshman girls, a white one from Georgia named Sydney (Francesca Carpanini) and a black one from Detroit named Deja (Suzette Azariah Gunn). No sooner have the girls met than Sydney, declaring it was her mom’s wish she always take pride in her Southern heritage, hangs a Confederate flag over her bed. Deja, upset, nonetheless refrains from making an issue of it, but eventually the flag’s presence leads to conflict, especially after Deja’s Asian-American boyfriend, Harry (Ruy Iskander), visits the room.

Although “Black Flag” opens fertile ground for discussion it’s impossible to swallow its premise. How likely is it that, in 2016, an otherwise intelligent girl without any other notable signs of racial bias would be so ignorant of the flag’s effect on an African-American roommate? Of course, the entire problem would have vanished immediately had Deja politely said something like, “You know, I don’t wish to get our friendship off on the wrong foot but, as a black woman, I do find the flag offensive and hope you don’t mind taking it down.” Instead, Sydney learns her lesson, sorry to say, from an experience as hokey as everything else in the play.

Logan Vaughan’s stiff direction does little to make the play’s themes resonate, and only Gunn’s performance has some sizzle to it.
Saverio Tuzzolo, Casandera M.J. Lollar. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Alexander Dinelaris’s “Queen,” “inspired by” Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s 1950 short story, “The Woman Who Came at Six O’Clock,” might have been a gem had it been more imaginatively staged and richly acted. This is the tale of a blowzy, fading beauty named Queen (Casandera M.J. Lollar), a prostitute who shows up at 6:00 P.M. at the dingy café run by Joe (Saverio Tuzzolo), who loves her and gives her free food and drink. Queen, who’s disgusted with her life, bears a dark secret.  Joe insists that he never lies but Queen wants him to do so regarding the time she entered his joint. While she’s in the ladies’ room, a detective (Chris McFarland) appears; in a moment, we surmise what’s happened.

“Queen” has the markings of a film noir, with its greasy spoon setting and sexy, downtrodden dame, but director Victor Slezak and lighting designer Greg Macpherson fail to create anything like the seedy ambience required. Tuzzolo and Lollar, although capable, don't go beyond what one might expect from an MFA acting exercise. Lollar, her stringy hair looking as if she just came in from a rainstorm, and her eyes drenched in pools of Gothic black, plays much of her role by staring straight out when she should be engaged in eye to eye confrontation with Joe. During an intense scene, Joe stands behind the upstage counter while Queen sits downstage of her table, facing away from him.
Saverio Tuzzolo, Chris McFarland. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Film noir itself happens to be the lifeblood of the final play, “The Dark Clothes of Night,” by Richard Alfredo, a mildly amusing spoof of hardboiled detective films of the 40s; its principal flaw (apart from its uninspired title) is that once we get the joke  that's pretty much all there is. Alfredo conflates a plotline about a film professor named Rob Marlowe (Dana Watkins), who specializes in film noir, with one about his alter ego, Burke Sloane (Watkins), a scruffy, fedora- and raincoat wearing private eye in the Sam Spade-Philip Marlowe tradition, who gets involved with a pair of sibling femme fatales. 
Dana Watkins. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Sinem Meltem Dogan, Dana Watkins. Photo: Carol Rosegg. 
Following the appearance at his office of a sexy nun on the run, murder and mayhem break out involving a depraved old man, a Nazi villain, a German nurse, and a police detective. These screen stereotypes alternate with the current-day story of the professor, his colleague, his wife, a therapist, and a female student as the action shifts rapidly back and forth from one story to the other. A mere three actors, using quick offstage costume changes (well-conceived by costumer Amy Sutton), cover all the roles.
Dana Watkins (seated), James Rees. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Dana Watkins, James Rees, Sinem Meltem Dogan. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Under the direction of Alexander Dinelaris, author of “Queen,” this is the most fully realized production; it uses effective projections by Daniel Mueller and a versatile lighting scheme by Macpherson to create suitable atmospherics. Burke’s dialogue, especially his monologues, is a clever pastiche of the Raymond Chandler-Dashiell Hammett noir patois, richly laden with double entendres and puns. When Burke is asked whether he’s a botanist, he replies, “Once in a while I try to take a whore to culture.” Da-da-boom!
Dana Watkins. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
This kind of thing has been done countless times before, of course (just think of the “Guy Noir” sketches on “A Prairie Home Companion”) so it has a limited shelf life and would work better if shortened by at least 10 minutes; this might also forestall the fogginess into which the conflation of the stories eventually descends. Still, it’s nicely done, Watkins does the split personality shtick well, and James Rees, who looks perfect for the lead in Fiorello!, shows off slick comic skills in seven widely varying roles. If Sinem Meltem Dogan, playing the five female roles, were as versatile, more laughs might have kept the piece bubbling a bit longer.
Dana Watkins, Sinem Meltem Dogan. Photo: Carol Rosegg.


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