Black Box New Play Festival
nytheatre.com review by Jack Hanley
June 8, 2006
Box 3 (June 22, 2006)
The third and last installment of Gallery Players' 9th Annual Black Box New Play Festival showcases seven short works by tri-state area playwrights in an evening themed "Connect & Disconnect."
Cliché, by Meghan O'Neill, is a serio-comic discussion between two sisters, both divorcées. Fresh from her divorce, Melanie is bruised. Her sister, Janie, takes a sardonic view, providing many of the script's punch lines. The writing and direction rely heavily on this set-up/punch line approach instead of allowing the comedy to flow naturally out of the tragedy of this life-changing event. Erin Kate Howard and Jess Phillips do their best to make the conversation natural, and I do applaud their comic timing. There is potential in this play once the jokes are limited to fit the action, not vice versa.
In Joe Lauinger's Close Enough for Jazz, a post-coital couple tries to connect mentally as they just did physically. Words are misconstrued as the conversation turns to jokes and recounted dreams in an effort to reach one another. There are nice isolated moments, yet the actors seem to be in different plays. Seth Morgan brings a wonderful ease and pathos to his character, but Elizabeth Day's intensity and fervor with every line feels forced. Overall, this piece has engaging sections but could benefit from some trimming.
Swing Set is a comic romp about two couples who meet on the Internet to do exactly what the title implies. It's directed for farcical laughs, and while it is funny, there is a deeper darkness that goes unexplored between these people, something I feel could offer a much more rewarding comedy. Rich Orloff's script allows authentic moments of disconnects that are for the most part glossed over. Zach Lombardo is noteworthy for the sincerity of his portrayal of one of the men, Chuck.
Sinatra Sings is one of the more successful acts of the evening. Jess Phillips returns as Marcie, a lonely woman who befriends Norm, another lost soul over drinks at a local bar. Todd Isaac is on the right path as Norm, but lacks some weight in his character's despair (perhaps just his age?). Phillips is at home with her vulnerability and is engaging to watch. Here again, Lauinger's text does a nice job of balancing the connect/disconnect theme, and Kevin Dodd's delicate direction proves not all short plays have to rely on laughs to be powerful.
The evening's other plays are less effective. The technical problems of No Great Loss (incomprehensible accents and unfocused staging) kept me at arm's length. Yes Fear explores two brothers' power struggle during a botched jewelry heist. I assume the stronger man is the one who keeps yelling, yet his dim-witted brother wins the battle with a remarkable lucidity that stems from nowhere. Rich on Skins left me plain confused, though somewhat intrigued. A stylized piece, the actors could be playing personified video game creatures, a tripped out Adam & Eve just before the fall, or perhaps homunculi responding to their boss' commands (among many other possibilities). I think a good revamping of the above plays would be worthwhile.
Given the limitations of design for seven different plays, the sets, lighting, and costumes are all effective. The theatre itself is very comfortable and the stage easily malleable to accommodate black box as well as large-scale productions. The Gallery Players are entering their 40th year providing theater in Brooklyn and they boast some impressive alumni. It's precisely because of festivals like this where playwrights are given the opportunity to find their voice that they are a worthwhile company to follow.
Box 2 (June 15, 2006)
The triumphantly soon-to-be 40-year old Brooklyn theater, Gallery Players, is offering their second week of one-acts in their Black Box Festival. It is, compared to last week's series, a slightly more satisfy evening. The one-act is alive and well here, but it's not always kicking.
Kevin Doyle's Compression of a Casualty begins the evening by staging a CNN morning newscast from several years ago. Two anchors start the show with a story out of Fallujah. A soldier has been killed by a roadside bomb. But his name is never mentioned. Quickly they transition, with smiles, to the Kobe Bryant story. Suddenly, after some strange meta-glitches in the broadcast, the fallen soldier appears standing between the two anchors begging them to reveal his name. The anchors are unaware of his presence and proceed with other stories while the soldier interjects tales from the life he lost.
Doyle tries hard to juxtapose an authentic life with that of the glossy, superficial lives of the newscasters. But he misses his mark; the soldier is characterized too simplistically. He feels no more real than the talking heads vying for the spotlight. Doyle's writing is by far the most stylistically original of the evening—speedy and comical while poignantly mixed with implicatures of our American culture. Tighter direction of the acting and a more complex rendering of the soldier's character will make this play the compelling piece it should be.
Fine acting is on display in Michael Bettencourt's Location: Highway. Time: Near Dusk. No, the title is not the setting. The setting is an interrogation room. Two detectives are interviewing a woman arrested for… well, I'm still not sure. One detective, played with riveting intensity by Stacie Greenwell, violently attacks the suspect, played with equal intensity by Erin Kate Howard. The other detective, played with surefooted skill by Steve Viola, takes a more passive approach.
So what did she do? She says she was driving on the highway and saw a truck run over several deer. Disgusted by the brutality, she pulled over and held one of the dead animals in her arms. Flashbacks, directed perfectly by Elfin Vogel, make us doubt her story. Bettencourt tantalizes us with mysteries using stark language and sharply drawn characters. I'm not sure if there is a moral to this story. I am sure that I hope there's not. I like a play that leaves questions only I can answer for myself… on a highway at dusk.
Year Ten by Effy Redman is the most ambitious work of the evening, but also the most disappointing. It attempts to elicit the horrors of the 1994 genocidal slaughter in Rwanda. We are introduced to the character of Hakizimana Murangira, played by Jonathan Williams. He is a survivor who takes a reporter and U.N. military peacekeeper on a tour of the devastation. But there is little story in this play; instead Redman tries to convey the vast political and social complexities of the genocide in a 20 minute one-act. But the theatre is no place for a history lecture.
After the intermission come three lighter and more comical works. Sidelines by David Henderson seems out of place in a one-act festival; it's really more of a sketch comedy piece. A bunch of moms are watching their kids play soccer. Some are boisterous and obnoxious and some are slightly drunk, and one is proper and positive. They begin to fight with each other and a surprising comic ending ensues. It is funnier than most sketches on SNL these days.
Deviled Sausage by Larry Mudge is another feel-good one-act, but it's really good to feel this piece on stage. I had hoped to see David Beukema (who performed superbly in a small role in last week's series) in a larger role. Here he plays the devil, who has come to earth to eat a huge dish of delicious sausages placed before him with varying sizes of bottled hot sauce (the most memorable props of the evening.) But he can't. Apparently, God's rule is that the devil can't eat the sausages unless someone dies for love of them.
Beukema is magically charismatic in this role. Mudge writes some great zingers for him, and the actor's genius physicality, his captivating expressiveness, his comic subtlety mashed with lunatic bravado make this play a joy to behold. Autumn Clark gives him all the space he needs, and neatly directs the rest of the superb cast.
Grim by Christopher Kloko ends the evening. It's a touching story that feels at times overly contrived. Ben Rathbun gives a heartwarming performance as Stanley, a man who wakes up in a hospital bed after a tragic hiking accident. He is filled with guilt because he left his business partner (they run a wilderness touring company) on a mountain peak in an attempt to save himself. He confesses this to his nurse who then invites a clown named Grim to cheer him up. But things are not as they seem. Grim is not so much a clown as—you guessed it—the grim reaper.
Understated and lovely is the performance by Daralyn Adams as Kali, the nurse. Albert Sanchez, Jr. unleashes a manic and loud performance. No doubt he's a talented actor but the director needed a stronger hand to pull him in a bit. I wanted to care more about Grim, and the writing was there to allow it, but Sanchez and the director never gave me a chance. Breathe, Grim, breathe.
Box 1 (June 8, 2006)
"A mixed bag." How many times have your heard that comment used to describe an evening of one-acts? But it's what I expect of such an evening. I even enjoy the prospect of a mixed bag: if I don't like one story I'm still full of anticipation that the next one will knock me out. But unfortunately when the final one-act finished of Box 1 of the Black Box Festival, I wasn't even leaning on the ropes.
There were some good punches thrown, especially by Cristina Pippa's Official Lunch. Her writing is original, quick-witted, and, yes, even punchy. Real people emerge from her daringly strange language. The story is about a first date, or so it seems. A man and woman meet at a restaurant and sit down at a table. They talk. She sells sex toys and teaches people how to use dildos. He's nervous and a little turned on. Then she takes out a voice recorder; and intrigue is served. He knows something; and it's something she needs to know.
The end fizzles—we're left with a mystery too mysterious, and I think it's a piece that deserves more story. But what should not be changed is the evening's most seductive and memorable performance by Hannah Snyder-Beck as Cynthia. She is a lithe and potent force on stage.
The evening's first one-act, The Big Guy with the Thing by Olga Humphrey, is something much less intriguing. It's a comedy, but also tries to be a hit-you-over-the-head metaphor of morality. The main character, Portia, loves parades—the St. Patrick's Day parade most of all. During this parade she falls for the drum major of a marching Celtic music troupe—he is attractive, but especially attractive to her is the power she believes he has over his troupe. She believes his power is represented by the mace (or staff) that he carries. The characters refer to it as "the thing." (That's supposed to be funny; ignorance of cultural icons.) So she steals it. Suddenly wonderful opportunities are granted to her, but the drum major becomes forlorn and weak, and his troupe begins to sound lackluster. Will she give the mace back? The flat writing and dimensionless characters left me with little care to find out.
Amy Hattemer and Lynne Rosenberg give energetic performances but they are energetically one-note. A lack of attentive direction was apparent especially in their sloppy and seemingly impromptu physicality.
Then came Sarah Moon's Bob Dylan in the Bathroom, a somewhat tedious play about Ramona, a free-spirited type who is desperate for more mystery in her life. She lives with her boyfriend, Roger, a stiff man who proselytizes Marxism. Roger is tired of Ramona's flights of fancy and wants her to get a job. Ramona goes to Barnes & Noble to apply for one, but ends up falling for a clerk and then meets a homeless woman in the bathroom who tells her she knows where Jimmy Hoffa is. Unfortunately we have to watch several redundant fights between Ramona and Roger before she realizes that searching for Hoffa is the mysterious adventure that will release her from Roger's overbearing temperament.
I sensed that Michael Goldfried's direction was too constrictive. This was apparent from the performances, especially Catherine DeCioccio's Ramona, that are more affected than authentic. DeCioccio seems very uncomfortable trying to imitate the physicality and voice of a little girl. Halfway through she drops the affect. I think she made a smart choice.
The homeless woman played by Chrystal Stone provides the one breath of fresh air in this work. Her skillful comic timing is a thrill to behold. She turns what could have been an offensively stereotypical portrayal of a homeless black woman into a portrayal pronounced by pathos and an endearing humor.
The final play of the evening is Kristoffer Diaz's The Trophy Thieves: A High School Love Story. It's a charming tale that could be cut down by about fifteen minutes. It's about two high school girls who scheme to steal a trophy won by the cheerleading team. They hate cheerleaders. One girl is brainy, pretty and shy, and the other is pugnacious and daring (and also pretty.) The writing at times captures perfectly the awkwardness and whimsy of teenage thralldom. But ultimately the characters are drawn too simplistically, and so I simply didn't care whether the trophy was ever successfully stolen. All the usual types of teens are paraded before us: the roughneck jock, the stupid but sweet jock, the flamboyantly gay geek, and the dumb cheerleader (represented cleverly by sock puppets.) Anthony Pound directs adventurously, sometimes too much so. And the wide variation in pacing he allows is irksome.
The one performance that cannot be ignored in this play is by David Beukema who plays Jake North, the stupid but sweet jock. His comic delivery is brilliant. In the brief time he is on stage he builds the most complete and most heartwarming character of the play. The energy in the audience surged anytime he walked on stage. I look forward to seeing him in larger roles.