nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
June 11, 2011
Memory, both sweet and painful, triggers engaging drama in each of the five plays of Ensemble Studio Theatre’s 33rd Marathon of One-Act Plays (Series B). It is a thin thread weaving together a memorable night of entertainment and talent. Quality casting, tight direction, graceful writing, and program diversity add to a satisfying evening.
First up is David Zellnik’s For Elise, in which Josh, a young Hasid, finds his grandmother, Elise, and cousin, Donny, outside the synagogue on his wedding day. The wedding stirs disturbing memories of Polish ancestors for Elise and loss of a friend and favorite cousin for Donny. Ghosts of the past mingle with a new order of things, as the three strive to hold their family together. Delphi Harrington, as Elise, gasps at the horror of finding her favorite grandson back in the shtetl of her grandparents. Drew Hirshfield counters with a confident sweetness of someone who has finally found his home. And, Erik Liberman displays the disquieting unease of a young man searching for a place to fit in. Beautifully directed by Pamela Berlin, the cast is allowed to develop the characters in a natural, satisfying way, mixing humor with their disquieting revelations.
Two from the Line, Michael Louis Wells’s two-hander, finds two close friends, Ed and Al, drinking beer as they watch a basketball game. Between comments on the game, Ed reveals a frank, yet stunning fantasy he once had about Al during his grandmother’s funeral. The confession threatens their relationship, and gives new meaning to nearly everything they say. The basketball game serves as an amusing distraction when conversation becomes too difficult. R. J. Tolan’s direction is well-paced. The sound of an actual basketball game in the background would have lent an additional air of authenticity to the dialogue, but Curran Connor and Eddie Boroevich as Ed and Al, respectively, battle and finesse their way out of this corner in credible fashion with more than a few laughs along the way.
All the plays this year are drawn from the EST membership—a large, diverse group—and Series B reflects that. Steven Sater offers a mysterious and heartfelt drama with music in Mrs. Jones and the Man from Dixieland. It features a poor, black, blind woman, Mrs. Jones, rocking her infant, when a man, Jimmy Jensen, repeatedly appears with goods from someone named Sweeney to decorate her empty cabin. She doesn’t want the gifts—resists them—and it is unclear exactly what Sweeney wants in exchange, but somehow memory and future morph into sadness and the play takes a sudden turn into an unexpected ending. Uzo Aduba is magnificently persuasive in her role as mother Jones, singing a new song by Sater and Duncan Sheik in as plaintive a voice as you’ll ever hear. Stanton Nash delivers Jimmy’s crisp sales pitch with each delivery, as he’s been instructed by Sweeney. He often shows misgivings in subtle facial expressions, which, of course, Mrs. Jones cannot see. There is graceful rhythm to Jose Zayas’s direction.
Cell, a drama by Cassandra Medley, illustrates survival skills of those on the edge of society’s precipice. Rene, forgives a 10-year spat when her younger sister, Cerise, calls to save her and her daughter, Gwen, from homelessness. Rene takes them into her trailer, and arranges jobs for them with her employer, Thurston Corp., a holding pen for undocumented immigrants. Lizan Mitchell gives Aunt Rene a tough veneer, one that demonstrates how family can be used as collateral, while MaConnia Chesser’s Cerise shows how easy it is to slide the slippery slope of selling her daughter down the river simply to keep herself afloat. Shyko Amos as Gwen does not appear to be slow as the adults describe her; rather she displays the enthusiasm, naiveté, and missteps of someone starting her first job. She grows up quickly when she tries to flee, realizing it may be worse out there than in the crowded trailer and inhumane jail. Jamie Richards directs with finesse.
Last on the roster is Jacquelyn Reingold’s I Know, a poignant play about a 30-year relationship that is about to end because of a transgression that took place early on—at least, that is what Lila tells 75-year-old Daniel. Beth Dixon lends dignity and strength to Lila, and Jack Davidson gives Daniel a cocky, talkative mien that belies his cluelessness. While the opening could have been stronger, the piece shows breadth of feeling—from comfort to tenderness and hurt to happiness. Not a bad way to round out an evening.