Sunday, August 18, 2019

57 (2019-2020): Review: SUMMER SHORTS: SERIES B (seen August 17, 2019)

"Coming up Shorts"

Series B, the 95-minute program of one-acts that alternates with Series A in the 13th annual Summer Shorts Festival of New American Plays at 59E59 Theaters, is an improvement over its series partner, reviewed here yesterday. Just a small improvement, but one takes one’s pleasures where one finds them. And, like Series A, it's a single gem, coming at the end, that makes the trip to 59th Street worthwhile. (See Series A for design credits.)
Blake DeLong, Christine Spang. All photos: Carol Rosegg.
It kicks off with “Lucky,” by the highly reputed Sharr White (The True, The Other Place), a two-hander that reads much better than it plays in this production, tediously directed by J.J. Kandel, artistic director of the festival's producer, Throughline Artists. Set in a motel on the outskirts of a small American town in 1949, it dramatizes the reunion of a long absent, depressed, World War II veteran, Phil (Blake DeLong), and his wife, Meredith (Christtine Spang).
Blake DeLong, Christine Spang.
Phil has been missing for six years, ever since going off to war. Although he and Meredith shared letters while he was in combat, his whereabouts and doings since then, aside from his being alive and unwounded, have been a mystery. Meredith has made a life for herself, unhappy as it is, boarding at the home of a woman whose son also has not returned. Still young and pretty, she’s not taken up with another man but has nonetheless become a topic of gossip among the catty townspeople.

Aware of Phil’s presence after his arrival to attend the funeral of his father (for some reason, another target of local gossipers)—his mother is still around—Meredith gets drenched rushing to him during a storm. However, his laconic, distant attitude does little to dry her off. The play, more a situation than a drama, chronicles Meredith’s desperate attempt to get her emotionally scarred spouse—he admits to being “broken”—to reconnect with her.

The piece, which opens to a montage of late 40s radio music and commercials (sound by Nick Moore), seeks to capture that moment in postwar America when the country was moving forward at a rapid pace—the boom in television sales symbolizes the national spirit—but some traumatized veterans, like Phil, found themselves adrift amid all the progress.

Very little of that spirit is embodied here, to a great extent because Phil’s taciturn, uncommunicative behavior suggests overweening self-pity, forcing us to wait for something to crack his shell. He doesn’t even bother to wipe the notably distracting shaving cream from his cheeks, nor does his stage partner, although such would have been a tiny symbol of her longing for intimacy.
Blake DeLong, Christine Spang.
Played at a snail’s pace, the lethargic production, for all its hints of Phil’s subdued ardor for Meredith, fails to express the electricity that must be coursing between a still youthful husband and wife who haven’t seen each other for six years. Much of the problem lies with DeLong, who, despite Phil finally having an emotional breakthrough, lacks the theatrical charisma to overcome what, as performed, comes off as little more than boringly solipsistic behavior.
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More appealing is Nancy Bleemer’s “Providence,” a light comedy set in that Rhode Island city (or the part designated as Northern Providence). There, Michael (Jake Robinson) and Renee (Blair Lewin), a young couple married for three and a half years, are attempting to sleep in his boyhood bedroom the night before his sister’s wedding. For whatever minor comic values it may have, Michael’s family is Italian and Catholic, while Renee is Jewish. A few moments—including their different views of the afterlife—point to potential marital discord but the play never goes there. For all intents and purposes, Michael and Renee seem like any other married couple, down to the personalized games they play with each other.
Blair Lewin, Jake Robinson.
Bleemer squeezes a few laughs out of Renee’s unfamiliarity with Michael’s typically colorful family members, her reactions to Providence’s relative provincialism (what? No allnight drugstores?), and, mostly, her need for Tampax when she feels her period coming on. The chief comic instigator, however, is a third character, Pauly (Nathan Wallace), the clueless, nervous groom who, hearing Renee and Michael’s voices, barges in to their bedroom at 3:00 a.m. to inquire about what he could possibly talk about with his bride.
Nathan Wallace, Jake Robinso, Blair Lewin.
The contrast between the goofy, overacted Pauly, and the cooler, better-educated couple (despite Michael's inability to tell a capon from a cornish hen) detonates a few, well-placed laughs, and the performances are satisfactory (Lewin’s carries the greatest sense of authenticity). However, director Ivey Lowe’s production favors a lowkey, naturalistic approach which, while it helps make the situation more believable and the humor more natural, also has a plodding rhythm that deflates the sprightliness necessary for material like this. 
Jack Mikesell, Ro Boddie. 
Neither of the first two plays, either in their writing or performance, succeeds in making you feel that what’s happening really matters much. The stakes never really seem that high, and we rarely feel invested in the characters or their plights. That, though, is the opposite of my response to Neil LaBute’s “Appomattox,” ironically titled after the location of one of the final battles of the Civil War, when Gen. Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, surrendered to the Union forces. The word isn’t used but its relation to slavery, which is, is palpable.
Jack Mikesell, Ro Boddie.
Although I can’t say I’ve appreciated every LaBute one-act I've seen (a lot), he is, perhaps, the form’s foremost advocate and representative, and “Appomattox,” perfectly directed by Duane Boutté, shows him at the top of his game. It’s also given stingingly excellent performances by its two, well-cast actors. 
Ro Boddie, Jack Mikesell.
Frank (Ro Boddie), who is black, and Joe (Jack Mikesell), white, are bros picknicking and tossing a football around in a large, urban park. Joe finds something on about a Georgetown University college guidance counselor having discovered that one of his own antecedents was a slave whose labors helped finance the very institution at which the counselor is now working.

Joe tells Frank about the students’ plans to raise funds to pay a modest sum as restitution to the descendants of all 272 slaves the place once sold in order to prevent its own financial demise. Joe thinks the idea admirable but Frank isn’t so sure, Aware of the sensitivities involved, he prefers not to get into the weeds about it. He'd rather leave the past in the past and move on into the future.
Ro Boddie, Jack Mikesell.
But Joe’s white, liberal guilt can’t shut the subject down. Frank is sucked into discussing it, even while knowing too well its immense complexities. His knowledge, to Joe’s surprise, gradually emerges as he begins to question just what price tag reparations might require, what form they might take, or, among other issues, just who would be deserving of them.

Frank's wokeness to the issues and deep sensitivity to them, begins to threaten his and Joe’s friendship. It temporarily shuts Joe down, until it doesn’t, moving the men’s relationship to a dangerously higher level when Frank tells Joe just what he personally would desire as reparations from his friend.

LaBute manages in the space of this brief play to condense the issue of slavery reparations into a dynamically tense, thoroughly dramatic, politically charged, and rhetorically informative experience. You may not agree with Frank’s arguments, during which he clearly strains to remain balanced and composed, but you'll be gripped by them and by the actors' emotional honesty as they wrestle with the problem.

Mikesell, as the guilt-ridden, painfully naive Joe, makes a wonderful foil for the remarkably controlled, simmering passions of Boddie.  His Frank, actually, is one of the most expertly realized performances of the season.

Sitting through the first two plays on this bill is small enough reparations to pay for the emotional and intellectual benefits of attending Neil LaBute’s expertly produced, masterful dramatization of a high-stakes issue presented in immediate human terms. It saves Series B from the heap and raises the bar for future one-act playwrights.

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