nytheatre.com review by Denton/Harcum
May 25, 2008
Series C (reviewed by Chris Harcum, 6/7/08)
Creating a masterful short play can be a tricky thing. The challenge for the playwright is to give us a complete world in a brief amount of stage time. The mechanics must all be there but the train can only make express stops. Some short plays are small slices of life while others seem like a full-length compressed into a frame only five percent the size. Some beckon to grow into larger pieces while others get to the punchline and finish before overstaying their welcome. A trip to EST's Marathon 2008 Series C will provide patrons with the best of all the above. Simply put, there are five excellent short plays in this series. Each is unique and vibrant. Like hearing five great songs of different genres on the radio in a row.
Frank D. Gilroy's Piscary starts the evening off on the right foot. Mark Alhadeff and Dianne Davis infuse a lot of charm and delight into their roles as a couple shifting from banality to crisis to super-crisis. What starts off seemingly as another checklist of generic relationship issues escalates into hilarity and great suspense as the pair put everything on the line. The overall effect of the play is like being taken out by a heavyweight prizefighter. First a few jabs that lull you, followed by some unexpected uppercuts and then a knockout.
The second piece is a comedy about some stoners pontificating about the secrets of existence while listening to some music. What makes it sublime is that the characters are all successful professionals in their 50s. The voices of the characters and the humor are high quality. In Between Songs by Lewis Black is darn near perfect. One wishes these characters had their own tv show, especially as brought to life by Jack Gilpin, David Wohl, and Cecilia DeWolf. Each brings so much humanity to the comedy you don't want them to stop. Why have we not had a major full-length production by this playwright in NYC?
José Rivera makes magic and poetry out of awkwardness in Flowers. Raul Castillo fuels the love, panic, and caring in his character Beto, the brother who stands by as his sister, Lulu, transforms into something glorious. Flora Diaz is an excellent actress and a good sport dealing with the multiple makeup changes. This play makes you feel like an impressionist painting is bursting to life before your eyes.
Japanoir by Michael Feingold is three plays in one and features nine actors. Feingold uses contrast and juxtaposition to bring forth the contrasts in life and art. The action switches between an interviewer trying to define the work of a director who indirectly answers her questions with the equivalent of Zen koans and two of his films. This piece will be fun for audiences to dissect after the show as it is open to many interpretations due to its twists and symbolism. The ensemble is exceptional at every turn, deserving their own theatre company and a gaggle of playwrights writing just for them.
The evening ends with Jacquelyn Reingold's A Very, Very Short Play, which is the love-at-first-sight story of the most unlikely couple in the world. While Adam Dannheisser and Julie Fitzpatrick are not the exact physical types of their characters (no one in the world is), they capture and convey the inner life of each so much you get on board their flight with them. Director Jonathan Bernstein was smart in casting these actors as well as recording the impossible stage directions for the audience to imagine and enjoy.
Kudos go to all the other directors of the evening as well. Janet Zarish, Rebecca Nelson, Linsay Firman, and Richard Hamburger have brought the most out of each piece. Each play is alive and complete. The costume design by Molly Rebuschatis, scenic design by Maiko Chii, and lighting design by Evan Purcell serve each play well. Their collective work really shines in Flowers and Japanoir where their details make the evening go beyond functionality to something beautiful. Shane Rettig's sound design and composition add many textures and subtle touches throughout the evening.
If you've forgotten what an enjoyable evening in the theatre can be, go see EST's Marathon 2008 Series C.
Series B (reviewed by Martin Denton, 5/25/08)
Series B of Ensemble Studio Theatre's Marathon 2008 is disappointing, offering too little that's diverting for audiences and too much that's heavy-handed and/or bleak. Only one piece succeeds at being both fresh and engaging within the short-play format, David Zellnik's delightful Ideogram, which is as perfectly funny and complete as a ten-minute comedy can be. It begins from a simple enough premise: Jasper (winningly portrayed by Bryan Fenkart) gets his Chinese-American friend Drew (Pun Bandhu) a birthday card, and as a joke he scribbles some made-up Chinese characters on it. Drew gives the card to an elderly relative (played with grand comic panache by Siho Ellsmore) who insists that the writing is real—in fact she says it's a beautiful poem. Zellnik builds on this initial idea creatively and cannily, along the way providing some genuine belly laughs in an evening otherwise devoid of them.
Taylor Mac's Okay, which is the most ambitious item on the bill, feels like what it is, which is a subversive drag performance that's been staged naturalistically as a one-act play; it becomes a savage and disheartening tragedy wrenched out of the performance context Mac's singular style would have provided it, and is exceedingly hard to take despite all of the talent involved with it (notably director Jose Zayas and actresses Kether Donohue and Olivia Mandell, who do fine work here). It's set in a girls' bathroom during a high school prom, and consists of a series of monologues that probe the startling and sensational depths of some very troubled young people, among them a surprisingly experienced gay boy and a girl who is about to give birth though no one even knows she's pregnant. The writing is vivid and pointed and clearly from the heart. But the piece resists this kind of traditional treatment; it feels glaringly out-of-place on this bill.
But it has more life than any of the other three plays in Series B. Happy Birthday William Abernathy is an over-written, one-note piece by Lloyd Suh about a 100-year-old Irish American man whose contempt for his Asian American relatives is meant, I think, to reveal something about American character. Director Deborah Hedwall has staged the play so that both of its actors—Joe Ponazecki as William and Peter Kim as his great-grandson Albert—spend large amounts of time with their backs to half the audience. And Ponazecki has to play the entire piece pants-less, due to Suh's awkward framing device (the old man had an accident, and they're waiting for the trousers to be cleaned up and returned).
Anne Washburn's October/November has some neat dialogue in it but emerges as a stilted study more than a story. It's about a 16-year-old girl named Nikkie who thinks she's more sophisticated than she actually is, and 13-year-old David, a more clear-headed fellow struggling with the onset of adolescence. Nikkie is one of the more unpleasant characters I can recall making the acquaintance of in the theatre, even given the relatively short span of time I was in her company, and especially due to Amelia McClain's relentlessly nasty interpretation of her. Gio Perez is enormously ingratiating as David, however.
The Great War, finally, is the evening's "big ticket item," with the most famous author (Neil LaBute), director (Andrew McCarthy) and actors (Laila Robins and Grant Shaud of Murphy Brown fame). I have to say that it bothered me that all of the "names" in this particular program were grouped together to work on this single project, as if the celebrity couldn't be spread around a bit. But let that go. LaBute's subject here is a married couple about to divorce; a married couple who hate—and I mean HAAATTTTE—one another. Their conversation consists of elaborate put-downs or unsubtle cruel put-downs or, most often, "fuck you!" Eventually their discussion turns to their two children, and an opportunity for LaBute to nail some bitter truths in a dark satirical style seems to emerge, only to be ignored. The play finally makes no other point except that these two mean people are...mean. Robins and Shaud do competent work, but their characters are not people I wanted to spend any time with.
It all made for a wearing program. Maybe Series A and C of the Marathon offer more variety and more lightness. But Series B proves to be quite a trial for its auditors.