Four by Three
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 1, 2006
The four plays that comprise this evening from New Media Repertory Company have in common the sudden twist at the end that was the stock in trade of O. Henry. Indeed one of them, Edward Musto's Poor Hearts, is based on an O. Henry story ("While the Auto Waits"); it's a charming little tale set in a New York City park during the height of the Great Depression. A young woman and young man get to talking to one another, both obviously hoping for (but afraid to pursue) a romance. A chauffeur looks on from a distance: is he with her, as she claims, or with him? You won't have trouble figuring it out, but Musto's writing here is sweet without being sentimental and the piece is a delightful diversion. Ken Schwarz and Abigail Ziaja play the young couple.
Musto is also represented with another short story adaptation, Everything Nice, based on Marilyn Henderson's "A Bum Rap." Sugar, a young woman who has spent much of her adult life in prison, is about to be released and is determined never to return. To that end, she's taken out an advertisement, looking for a wealthy man to become her patron—she's not looking for love, just security and safety, and she's willing to do whatever she has to in order to obtain them. However the man who answers her ad, a rich, self-involved businessman named Cortland, turns out to be more than she bargained for. Everything Nice takes a number of unexpected turns, and with Deanne Henson's very effective and sympathetic performance as Sugar, we find ourselves caught up in it. Unfortunately, Henson's co-stars Brian Mooney (as Cortland) and Eliza Johnson (as Sugar's friend and creditor, Ginger) are much less convincing in their roles, and the story's surprise ending loses some of its impact as a result.
The two other plays on the bill are by other authors. Stanford Pritchard's Act Two, which closes the evening, imagines two audience members arriving late after intermission and accidentally stumbling onto the stage, right in the middle of a performance of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. It's a humorous idea, and Pritchard develops it nicely; unfortunately, in order to make sense it needs to be done in a much larger theatre than this one: the audience is simply too close to the actors for some of the gags to really register. Nevertheless, Mooney is terrific here as the thoughtless/hapless audience member, as is Lija Fisher as his wife. Schwarz plays (or tries to play) Brutus, to fine comic effect.
All Is Calm, by John Levine, which rounds out the program, is the most ambitious and interesting of the quartet. Two policemen—a long-time veteran whose career and marriage seem to be dead-ending and an African American rookie who is college-educated and gay—are partnered in an anti-terrorism drill. The senior cop, Russ, fumes that he has to pretend to be the terrorist; his racism and homophobia bubble just under the surface of his humiliation at having to work with this younger man he does not respect. The play follows them both from work to home, where each man takes out his anxieties on his partner. Levine covers intriguing ground here, and the performances of Schwarz (as Russ), David King (as the other cop, Jason), and especially Billy Lane (as Jason's boyfriend, Gary) are quite good.
The entire evening is directed by Miranda McDermott, who is also the artistic director of this Upper East Side theatre company. It's a group I've not met up with before: they offer classes to young people as well as reading series of new plays, from where all four of these pieces originated.