Saturday, August 17, 2019

56 (2019-2020):Review: SUMMER SHORTS: SERIES A (seen August 16, 2019)

You've read the reviews. Now read the book. THEATRE'S LEITER SIDE, 2012-2013 A Brief Memoir and Reviews

"Short Shrift"

Returning for its 13th consecutive year at 59E59 Theaters is the Summer Shorts Festival of New American Short Plays, produced, as usual, by Throughline Artists, in two evenings of three one-act plays each: Series A and Series B. Also, as usual, this being my eighth encounter with the festival, the results are a decidedly jumbled bag, both in writing and performance.
Jordan Bellow, Bill Buell. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Series A, which runs an intermissionless 90 minutes, includes three plays, Nick Payne’s “Interior,” Danielle Trzcinski’s “The Bridge Play,” and Courtney Baron’s “Here I Lie,” presented in that order. Each deals in some way with suicide (possible, potential, and planned), but little else connects them apart from Rebecca Lord-Surrat’s flexibly neutral setting.

Its main feature is herringbone-patterned panels, including a gate-like, upstage backing that opens and closes laterally as needed. Greg MacPherson provides some lovely lighting and the distinctive projection designs of Joshua Langman create a number of potent images. Amy Sutton designed the mostly everyday costumes.

“Interior” is an adaptation of Belgian playwright MauriceMaeterlinck’s (1862-1949) 1894 play of the same name. A leading figure in the late 19th-century Symbolist movement (he received a Nobel Prize in 1911), his plays (which included Pelléas and Mélisande and The Bluebird) were notable for the dreamlike, mystical staging opportunities they offered those seeking to break away from the growing influence of naturalism. “Interior” belongs to a series of one-acts Maeterlinck wrote in the early 1890s, the others being “The Blind” and “The Intruder,” pervaded by a tone of subconscious dread, punctuated by silences and moody lighting.
Jordan Bellow, Bill Buell. All photos: Carol Rosegg.
What plot there is in “Interior” concerns an Old Man (Bill Buell) and a Stranger (Jordan Bellow), standing outside the home of a family to which they’ve come to report the possibly self-inflicted death by drowning of their daughter. Standing in the cold, watching the soon-to-be-distraught family inside their warmly lit home (seen as a projection), the men hesitatingly discuss how best to deliver the tragic news, which will shatter the happiness of those inside.

Finally, as the mourning townspeople approach, the Old Man ventures forth, his emotions wordlessly presented as he stands, spotlighted amid falling snowflakes. No words are necessary to express either his feelings or those of the family, which, in this version, we don’t see.
Mariah Lee, Jordan Bellow, Bill Buell.
Director Rory McGregor’s production, apart from several effective lighting and projection effects (using paintings by Sharon Houner), fails to bring much emotional or dramatic interest to Maeterlinck’s intentionally static drama. The acting throughout (which includes appearances by Joanna Whicker and Maria Lee as young women) is bland. It’s easy, in fact, to see why Maeterlinck himself intended that it be acted by marionettes. Only the veteran Buell’s sad, hangdog expression offers a glimpse into the play’s interior world.
Mariah Lee, Joanna Whicker, Bill Buell.
Although a more creative staging might inject “Interior” with greater interest, one wonders, given the festival’s focus on “new American short plays,” why, apart from its place in theatre history, this 125-year-old Belgian drama (written in French) was deemed worthy as a Summer Short.
Christopher Dylan White, James P. Rees.
“The Bridge Play,” a dark comedy with a somewhat lighter attitude, shows John (James P. Rees), a forlorn, ordinary, middle-aged guy, preparing to jump off the George Washington Bridge. Before he can leap, he’s accosted by a late-teens driver, Alex (Christopher Dylan White), who gets out of his car (as if you can just park on the GWB) to intervene (or make a viral video). Naturally, John soon finds himself bonding with his innocuous, mildly depressed, young savior.
James P. Rees, Christopher Dylan White.
The barely humorous humor comes from such things as Alex’s juvenile views of middle-aged sex and a phone call from a friend with a clogged toilet that requires plumbing instructions from John. An odd twist at the end involving the New York Yankees makes no sense but that’s the least of this mediocre play’s problems.
James P. Rees, Christopher Dylan White.
A somewhat similar situation informs Luv, Murray Schisgal’s 1964 hit Broadway comedy (later made into a movie). Here, however, playwright Trzcinski is unable to wring sufficient comedy or pathos out of the setup, nor is director Sarah Cronk able to light enough of a fire under her actors to overcome the play’s inadequacies. Rees, heavily mustached, shows sparks of histrionic and comic life, but White is dull, sometimes mumbling his words inaudibly.
Robbie Tann, Libe Barer.
Far more memorable, both as a play and production, is Baron’s two-hander, “Here I Lie,” a title that might imply words on a gravestone or the fabrications that inform the lives of its protagonists. Maris (Libe Barker) is an attractive young editor at a major publishing house. Joseph (Robbie Tann) is a bearded, wool-capped nurse who switched his specialty from geriatric care to the better-paying neo-natal, making him, as a male, a rarity among baby nurses.
Libe Barer, Robbie Tann. 
Written in a manner reminiscent of the intertwined monologues in the currently running Little Gem at the Irish Rep, “Here I Lie” allows each character to tell their story both to us, the audience, and to the other party, with each reacting to the other’s narrative but only actually connecting toward the end.
Libe Barer, Robbie Tann.
Maris is able to gain sympathy and professional advancement by deliberately passing herself off as dying from cancer. This is something she realizes when the only way she can get her boss to accept a second-rate memoir by a cancer survivor is to suggest she herself is a victim of the disease. Her deceptions can only lead in one direction.

Like Maris, Joseph also fakes being ill, until we're not sure where the faking ends and the truth begins. He works diligently to make his medical problems palpably evident by various self-destructive means, baffling his doctors by how cleverly he manages to seem really sick.

Both characters describe their symptoms in detail, including the citing of technically specific conditions and medication. Maris’s narrative is preoccupied with her deceiving her employer, friends, and family, while Joseph’s focuses on his obsessive affection for a tiny, premature baby he cares for, names after himself, and hopes to adopt, even if it means marrying the child’s skanky, unwed mother.
Libe Barer, Robbie Tann.
Some of this fails the plausibility test, and it contains digressions (as in Joseph’s tale of a relationship with a sexy woman of disparate leg length). However, the writing is always absorbing, the actors thoroughly invested and believable, and Maria Mileaf’s direction perfectly in tune with Baron’s narrative style. Even the implausible comes to seem plausible and you appreciate the conviction with which such mendacity can hold your interest.

Up next, Series B.

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