Black Box New Play Festival
nytheatre.com review by Jaime Robert Carrillo
June 2, 2005
Week Four - The Runaway Birthday - reviewed by Alex Roe
The Runaway Birthday, a “Play for Families and Children” by Jennifer Palumbo, offers the usual young audience fare: heroes, villains, and knaves; plot dilemmas with edifying resolutions; and broad acting under all. But the play is more sophisticated than your run-of-the-mill kids' show. An ironical self-consciousness colors its ingenuous messages, providing both a playful story for the young as well as a wry amusement for their chaperones.
For a theme, the readiness is all. Beginning with a narrator who is running behind schedule, Birthday itself is not ready to start when it does. After a little banter, the Teller of Tales decides on a story, but it has already gotten away from him. He doesn’t know the characters’ names, he is interrupted by a variety of interlopers, and his strained past with a key character threatens to do in the whole narrative. This frame informs the whole play: anyone can get in over their heads. The question is how we deal with it.
The story Teller narrates, at least insofar as he can keep up with it, is of one Cinderella—not that one, another one—who prefers to go by Cindy, and who is as vain and spoiled a narcissist as you could wish. Princess of the kingdom of Whimsy, she resents the attention her awkward brother Melvin receives merely because he is heir apparent, and she wishes every day would be the one day she receives the attention she feels she deserves. Sure enough, thanks to a no-nonsense but accommodating fairy, she gets her wish, and it is more than she is ready for.
Though no one else appreciates that calendar years pass daily, every morning dawns on another birthday for the princess. From Cindy’s perspective, boredom is the first down side, but soon, she recognizes more dire consequences. To begin with, daily celebrations rapidly deplete the kingdom’s resources: the royal coffers empty, the populace starves, a national malaise infects the land. Then, although no one feels older or wiser, they acknowledge that the years are flying by, which means precious Cindy is middle-aged before her time, her parents (the king and queen) take off for a very early retirement, and hapless Melvin is crowned before he is out of short pants. And worst of all, under Melvin’s reluctant rule, the foundering kingdom falls victim to malevolent aristocrats from a nearby city—the Duke of Folly and his sister Lady Penelope.
Can Cindy set things right? Of course. She learns to see beyond herself, Melvin finds a lion's heart in his coward’s body, the Duke and Lady P receive a shot of humility, and even the Teller of Tales gets a lesson in responsibility.
What distinguishes The Runaway Birthday is in the telling. Palumbo’s dialogue is a funny pastiche of fairytale speech and contemporary vernacular. Her off-kilter characters and her playful plot are engaging and even surprising. Finally, her weaving together of the tale with its own telling is more than amusing, it helps the themes resonate.
Director Dominic Cuskern’s production mixes the whimsical with the mundane, allowing the play to seem both confident and casual, a fine tone for a story about discovering your stroke when fate throws you in the deep end. He and his performers’ telling clips along at a spirited pace while still enjoying opportunities for winning takes and indulging in playfully broad performances. Thomas Kelley is affable and engaging as the Teller of Tales. Ginger Kroll captures Cindy’s insufferable vanity while being charming herself. Chris Speziale as Melvin grows more likeable as Melvin grows himself. Marshall York is on the bogus end of the scale when he is playing the King of Whimsy, but he is very funny as the self-involved Duke of Folly. Jessica James and Jonathan Calindas are both surprisingly sympathetic in small roles as townspeople. And Emily Gabler as Fairy Fran brings a little magic onto the stage with each entrance. Sassy, wry, and over it all, this working-girl fairy grants wishes because it’s her job, but she has a sentimental side that is a little like hope. Ms. Gabler’s timing and swagger make the most of a refreshing device, and the ironical edge she brings to Runaway Birthday helps this child-friendly production dig deeper than you might expect.
Who is the ideal age for the play? The youngest in the audience the night I saw it, though attentive, did seem to be less on top at the end of the hour and twenty minute production than at the start. A teenager might be a little beyond the fairy tale story, while the play’s teeth are not so sharp as to thrill an adolescent. Perhaps it is the “tweens”, then, who are best suited to the play’s knowing tone and earnest import. But Runaway Birthday is a charming and witty offering to all comers.
Week Three - "Heaven & Earth" - reviewed by George Hunka
Stephen J. Bottoms, in his recent book on the off-off-Broadway movement Playing Underground, notes: “… [T]he one-act form relies less on linear dramatic development than on the presentation of an immediate, theatrical ‘moment,’ staging not so much a story but a single act.” The five-play program for the third offering of the Gallery Players’s eighth Black Box New Play Festival exemplifies the description.
The four collections or “boxes” of plays in this year’s festival are grouped under different themes. The plays of Box One, “Brooklyn Plays, Brooklyn Playwrights,” all touched on Brooklyn; those of Box Two, “The Sex Box,” sex; those of Box Four, “The Sandbox” (which opens next weekend), are children’s plays. Box Three’s theme, “Heaven & Earth,” covers everything else, with a nod to otherworldly possibilities. Each of the plays is “immediate and theatrical,” in Stephen Bottoms’ words, to varying degrees of success, as should be expected in a grab-bag like this one. The Players’s batting average in this program hovers at .600: three hits out of five at-bats, not bad at all. None of the playwrights who connect manages to smash one out of the park, but there are certainly solid base hits and doubles in the evening.
Daniel Damiano’s Bon Voyage, Mr. Phelps! and Staci Swedeen’s Chasing the Deal start and end the evening with a bang. Bon Voyage, Mr. Phelps!, a fantasy about an earthling’s vacation travel to Mars, manages to deliver a subversively anti-colonialist statement wrapped in a cheerily comic dialogue between a tourist and a travel agent; D.H. Johnson, as the unctuous agent Crenshaw, delivers a precisely comedic performance, featuring a supercilious grin that could melt concrete. Chasing the Deal is rather harder to make out—it’s a semi-absurdist comedy about a real-estate agent chaperoning the queen of an alien planet and a borderline necrophiliac cowgirl through a luxury house (funnier than it sounds, but really you have to be there)—but Swedeen’s knack for sudden, bizarre juxtapositions keeps the short play fast on its feet. Maria Ryan, as the frustrated and disappointed real estate agent, shines in this one.
These plays sandwich three by Joe Lauinger, a Black Box Festival regular, two of which are unfortunately the weakest of the evening. The Green Angel, the play which closes the first half of the program, is a neat but overlong character study about a statistics professor’s research assistant (Ryan again) and a peculiar, lovelorn librarian (played most creepily by Anthony Crep). Lauinger’s two other plays, Her Favorite Color and Grandma’s Sweater Blue, feature the same characters, Dawn (Elizabeth Phillipp) and Sean (Jeff Silver), in two stages of their marriage’s collapse. Phillipp and Silver try mightily to find sympathetic and consistent traits in their yuppie characterizations, but the playwright doesn’t help them much on this score. Silver succeeds in finding a melancholy sadness in the unlikable Sean, but Phillipp’s Dawn remains unsympathetic and inconsistent across the two plays (to Phillipp’s credit, it’s not for lack of trying).
In naturalistic plays like these, directors are hard-pressed to come up with unique interpretive perspectives. What can one do with settings like waiting rooms, cafes, and airport lounges? The standard of verisimilitude is limited to contemporary private behaviors in contemporary public places, and the long tradition of American realism is so well-defined that sometimes all a director has to do is connect the dots. However, Heather S. Curran in Bon Voyage, Mr. Phelps! and Raymond Zilberberg in Chasing the Deal find moments of creative scenic and staging potential for their plays here and there.
Lighting designer Erin O’Brien and set designer Timothy J. Amrhein provide an attractive and supple unit set for all five plays. Like directors, costume designers must feel somewhat hamstrung faced with contemporary realistic plays, but Kathleen Leary deserves praise for her playful and even somewhat poetic decisions in The Green Angel and Chasing the Deal. The lime-green detail for Ryan’s costume in Lauinger’s The Green Angel is a nice, subtle touch, not to mention the schizophrenic, epilepsy-inducing shirt-and-tie combination Leary supplies for the librarian. And although I never thought I’d find myself asking the question, “What would alien royalty wear when house-hunting?”, the Rube-Goldbergish contraption that Leary supplies for the stately Lauren Shannon in the last play provides a delightful response.
Week Two - "The Sex Box" - reviewed by Maggie Bell
Gallery Players has been producing affordable theatre in Brooklyn for over 15 years. The annual Black Box Festival of new plays is in its second week. In line with the format of most short play festivals, this week includes four plays and follows a theme, entitled "The Sex Box."
The first play, The Sex of Our Lives, jumps right into this theme. It begins after an impulsive three-way between two men and a woman, Jill, Paul, and Mike. Excited, the boys want a repeat performance and convince Jill to meet them again. Playwright Erik Cristian Hanson introduces an interesting twist when, upon Jill leaving, Mike discovers his attraction to Paul. As Paul and Mike, Noah Trepanier and Todd Isaac play well the awkwardness in this situation. They can push this a bit more. As Jill, Leanne Fornelli does not have much more purpose than a sounding board for the real story. Fornelli demonstrates both her vulnerability and sensuality well, darting from Paul to Mike in the love triangle. However, the play ends too bluntly, right when Mike and Paul begin to humanize this new discovery. It would be good for Hanson to explore this new relationship more.
The next piece, Michael Bettencourt's Sporting Goods, is a brave form of performance art about hidden desire. It takes place in a wrestling arena, where we see a match between two men who are on the brink of either killing or kissing each other. As they push and writhe, their words are poetry. Adam Blanshay and Nathan Freeman are confident in their skin. Their tension is palpable, but again, they seem to get lost in the pretty words at times and forget each other.
Bibbity Bobbity Boo by Charlotte Winters is a fantasy piece, occurring when three Fairies come to Johnny in his sleep and out him. Played with humility by Jamie Effros, Johnny comes to terms with his being gay through their reenactments of his actions. Of the three gay-themed plays, this one trades most in stereotypes, e.g., the fairies have lisps and limp wrists. It seems tired that we still have to witness this angle—it's refreshing when people are presented as people first, then as gay or not gay. As the fairies, though, Ken Dray, Chris Speziale, and Kyle Minshew have genuine fun onstage.
Set apart from the first three plays, the final play The Poison Party, written by John Paul Porter, is not about sex. Rather, it is a confident play about four New York women who gather to do Botox together, but cannot get past their judgmental views of each other. Liddy, the antagonist of the group, is played with a high-tone by Patricia Lavin, while Sue Glausen Smith plays hostess Eleanor with great neurosis. The catty maneuvers and polite body language among the women is delicious. The play could use some fine-tuning, as I did not prefer it’s general message of insecure women. The cast here could also move faster with the pace, making tense moments pop more.
Overall, the evening is enjoyable. I commend Gallery Players for their commitment to excellence in affordable theater.
Week One - "Brooklyn Plays—Brooklyn Playwrights" - reviewed by Jaime Robert Carrillo
The first weekend of Gallery Players' 8th Annual Black Box New Play Festival features five short plays themed “Brooklyn Plays / Brooklyn Playwrights.”
The first play, Only the Dead Know Brooklyn, aims at revealing the complex world that Brooklyn is, especially with all its unique neighborhoods. It begins with a surprising fourth-wall breaking staging choice by director Elfin Vogel. While refreshing for the first few minutes, this opening risks becoming uninteresting, as the audience has to crane their necks too much to follow the action. I appreciate the experimental nature of these first moments, but the motionlessness lasts too long.
Actors Todd Isaac, Demetrius Kallas, Steven Viola, Robert Kiernan show commitment in their performances, and deserve praise. The writing on the other hand is difficult to follow. Playwright Michael Bettencourt attempts thought-provoking drama, but it’s not clear whether the characters are alive or dead throughout the story. The characters, though strangers in the play, exhibit a forced familiarity with each other that is unconvincing. One of characters supposedly drowns, but there is no explanation as to why that happens, or how the subway platform he is standing on is suddenly used as the fatal body of water that dooms him. There is a random moment at the end where an actor pulls an audience member out of his seat (not a plant) to help carry a character off stage. I’m not sure what Vogel communicates with that choice. Designer Kathleen Leary’s costume for Man Three is eye-catching, especially the black-and-white shoes and business tie.
The second play, Cat & Dick, occurs on the ledge of a New York office building. Cat, played by Dianna DiPalma, attempts to plunge to her death, yet an innocent and eccentric character named Dick, played by Anthony Crep, interrupts her. Crep is hilarious, and is the one to watch here. While a few unexciting ironic jokes about death are present, playwright Andrea Alton receives a huge laugh from the audience with a clever joke about syphilis.
The third play is Anxiety & Grandma. Playwright Judd Lear Silverman successfully writes a credible play about an incredible situation. Noah Trepanier plays Joel, who is visited by his long-dead Grandma, played by Pnina “Penni” Tross. Both actors display high levels of commitment. Tross stands out for her convincing portrayal and unique-sounding voice. Director Michael Silverstone does a competent job.
The true gem of the evening is Maggie Lehrman’s comedy The Me That’s Me, complete with quality acting and solid directing. Miranda Lane as Abby, Thomas Kelley as Ryan, and Lindsay Joy as Kristen all deliver noteworthy performances. Joy is exciting to watch in this role from start to finish. She is funny and compelling as her character expresses happiness over discovering her real self. Director Brooke Delaney does a commendable job casting. Delaney stages the action so the audience easily understands the comedy and storyline. What makes this script appealing is that it captures honestly three very different people individually trying to find themselves. Anyone who has gone through a process of searching inside themselves can relate to this bit of theatre. Lehrman has a funny and performance-worthy piece in her hands.
The last piece of the evening is Goode Books & Press by Allan Lefcowitz. It is about a couple in their 50’s deciding to sell their business in the face of slow sales and a high offer for their land. The bright spots are Joe Cooper’s charming quality as Edward, and Patricia Lavin’s sexy aura as Georgia. Thomas Kelley chimes in with a poignant cameo role as Phillip. It’s his earnest affection for this bookstore that provides the most touching point of the evening. But the direction by Scott Brocious and Lefcowitz’s writing are not attention-grabbing, which makes the finale of the evening feel dragged out.
Overall, this festival night is a good bargain at $15 for two hours of new theater.