Saturday, August 11, 2018

61 (2018-2019): Review: SUMMER SHORTS 2018: SERIES A (seen August 8, 2018)

"One Out of Three"

Summer Shorts, the annual two-program festival of American short plays at 59E59 Theaters, is the city’s premiere showcase for traditional one acts. Such plays run roughly a half hour or so in contrast to the now common practice of plays filling an entire bill for a mere 45 minutes to an hour, and sometimes two hours or more, without a break. Of those one-acts I’ve seen over the past seven years of the festival’s 12-year history, however, only a few have enhanced the status of the form, which also is true of the 2018 offerings.

Kate Buddeke, Joel Reuben Ganz. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
As is now standard, the festival offers two three-play programs, Series A and Series B, each an intermissionless 90 minutes. Two plays in Series A are by rising playwrights Robert O’Hara (Barbecue) and Abby Rosebrock (Different Animals) whose ascent, I’m afraid, suffers a loss of altitude with this departure. The third, best-selling novelist Chris Bohjalian’s (The Flight Attendant) first play, encounters turbulence but manages to stay aloft.

Each Series A play, without being notably polemic, touches lightly on some contemporary social issue that has been gently peeled, rather than ripped, from the headlines. “The Living Room” has a racial theme, “Kenny’s Tavern” takes place just before Trump’s election, and “Grounded” brings #MeToo to mind. Physical action is limited; the actors in each do little more than sit and talk.
Kate Buddeke, Joel Reuben Ganz. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
“The Living Room” is African-American playwright O’Hara’s metatheatrical fantasy about Frank (Joel Ruben Ganz) and Judy (Kate Buddeke), the last two white people on earth. They’re seated for our viewing pleasure in an eternal living room’s armchairs by an unseen, God-like, black dramatist. Sometimes, they comment surreptitiously on his personal and artistic proclivities.
Kate Buddeke, Joel Reuben Ganz. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Frank and Judy, frustratingly aware that they’re only fictional entities, describe the violent story that got them here and that led to the birth of their baby, a doll sitting at one side. They suggest that they exist because, in view of all the money whites made off slavery (which they refer to as “bubblegum”), the unnamed writer is seeking reparations by making “a quick buck off a couple of White People trapped as White Characters in their living room!”

They also frequently mock the theatre’s conventions, like their existence between blackouts and lights up, the presence of the fourth wall, the artificiality of stage food, or props like the doll baby. The play’s points seem blunted to the point of pointlessness and its self-declared existence as a “satire” evokes barely any laughs. The characters—whose dilemma is faintly reminiscent of Six Characters in Search of an Author—remain locked in O’Hara’s brain, unable to escape, just as the actors, under his listless direction, fail to make much of a connection with the audience. 
Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Stephen Guarini. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In Rosebrock’s “Kenny’s Tavern” we’re in the seedy backyard behind the title locale, a dive bar in a North Carolina town. Laura (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie), a lonely, mid-20s English teacher at a magnet school, is downing shots with her early-40s dean and mentor, Ryan (Stephen Guarino). With the 2016 presidential elections days away, Laura, concerned about the political climate, talks about teaching Muriel Sparks’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which raises the theme of fascism.

Mariah Lee, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Stephen Guarino. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Laura and Ryan are involved (although he’s resisted her desire to sleep together) but he’s also got someone else. Laura—who compares Ryan to Trump—is so distraught she’s threatening to leave. There's also Jaelyn (Mariah Lee), the underprivileged, underage, hillbilly-accented teen who serves them. Jaelyn, twice rejected by their magnet school (a term she doesn’t understand), provides the most interesting element by allowing Rosebrock to depict how the self-involved, politically blue teachers treat the self-hating, red-leaning Jaelyn (Laura even calls her a “gargoyle”).
Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Stephen Guarino. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
But none of it amounts to much, plot or theme-wise, and the action slumbers until director Jess Chayes momentarily wakes it up with a bit of unconvincing ranting from Laura. “Kenny’s Tavern,” lacking both dynamic direction and acting, quickly recedes into the miasma of forgotten one-acts. Rosebrock’s future (she recently wrote a PhD dissertation on Chaucer), though, looks bright, with the Atlantic Theater scheduled to do her full-length Blue Ridge in the fall.
Mariah Lee, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Bohjalian’s “Grounded” (not to be confused with 2014’s long one-act of that title, whose 2015 revival starred Anne Hathaway) nearly rescues the floundering evening. Grace Experience plays Emily, a young flight attendant headed for London, nervous because it’s her first transatlantic assignment. She and the older, more experienced, worldly Karen (K.K. Glick) get to know each other as they fold napkins in preparation for takeoff and then, while seated and strapped in, as the plane ascends. 
Grace Experience, K.K. Glick. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The play, like the flight, isn’t always smooth, but Bohjalian succeeds in creating relatable, well-written characters, each of them given convincing performances that are the evening’s real standouts. The central premise concerns Emily’s revelation that for many years, beginning when she was 15, a friend of her dad’s named Vladimir (cue the Putin jokes) took sexual advantage of her, although with her consent. Having come to the realization of her victimization, she ponders the ramifications of exposing the predator, which will cause suffering to those around him.
K.K. Glick, Grace Experience. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
“Grounded” starts off as a light comedy about an apparently clueless young woman making her first transatlantic flight, which belies the more serious purpose that slowly comes into focus. Emily’s dilemma has considerable contemporary pertinence, made especially palpable in the sensitive, emotionally rich performances of Experience and Glick. Director Alexander Dinelaris deserves kudos for helping shape the simple humanity of their work.
Grace Experience, K.K. Glick. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Once it makes its point, however, the play tends to linger a tad too long, as if not quite sure how to wrap itself up. Finally, it’s hard for the audience not to wonder about the service on this airplane. Aside from an occasional word or two to nearby passengers, or a PA announcement, once the craft is in the air Emily and Karen seem more concerned about their chit chat than fulfilling their responsibilities to a planeload of passengers.
K.K. Glick, Grace Experience. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Tying the plays together is Rebecca Lord-Surratt’s adaptably neutral curtain-like background, which accommodates the various settings, Greg MacPherson’s versatile lighting, Nick Moore’s sound design (apart from the odd choice of “Rhapsody in Blue” for “Grounded”), and Amy Sutton’s costumes.

Series A goes one for three, good for a baseball hitter but not good enough for an evening of one-act plays.


59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through August 31