Pieces of a Playwright
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 28, 2010
Pieces of a Playwright is a program of nine short plays by Matthew Ethan Davis, directed and produced by Albert Insinnia, a theatre veteran with a long list of credits who here launches a new company, Oasis.ny, whose mission is to provide "a creative outlet for actors that wouldn't add to financial strain." So this is very much a showcase for Davis and for the 13 actors on stage who have been working with Insinnia at his studio for more than a year (and the actors often do double duty, serving in various technical/design capacities as well).
Davis is a playwright whose work I first encountered about a decade ago, in Gorilla Rep's Washington Square Dreams (published, it must be disclosed, in NYTE's Plays and Playwrights 2001). His contribution to that anthology of short plays inspired by Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream was A Midlife's Dream, a mature, wistful drama about a middle-aged couple in a distressed marriage who look back at their younger selves on the night he proposed to her (at an outdoor performance of Midsummer in Washington Square Park). A Midlife's Dream is one of the nine plays in Pieces, re-thought by Davis and Insinnia so that we see the story not in flashback but in correct time sequence; as performed by Sara Minerd and Ian Campbell Dunn, the shift in perspective is very effective, highlighting what's lost as well as what's gained as time moves on. Davis ends this play, and virtually of all the others in this collection, on a ray of hope; this plus his appreciation of the odd magic of existence are what most characterize his work, in fact.
That magic—call it fantasy, or surrealism, or simply a wildly off-kilter and quirky sense of possibility—is especially important in three of the plays in Pieces. In the opener, Through the Floor, a young man on a date in a restaurant with a beautiful woman suddenly finds that he has disappeared under the table, victim, perhaps, of being so overwhelmed by the kiss he was just about to ask for. In Sinking, a kitchen sink appears in the middle of a couple's living room, with surprising results. And in Crossed Legged, two members of a yoga class suddenly discover that they are floating on a river on tiny leaves, and that they have each shrunk to just three inches tall. Davis plays with time and space beautifully in these works, supplying vivid, image-filled language to allow his characters to articulate the inexplicable things that life and love have done to them.
Highway 5.9 is the most realistic play here, dealing in a very forthright way with a problem facing too many of us, namely the accumulation of credit card debt in a bad economy. Love provides some answers. Even in the darker plays that comprise the second act this is generally true: it figures importantly in Garden Street, a contemporary retelling of the story of Adam and Eve, and in a different way in Tracking, about two young people who were victims of abuse.
My favorite play in Pieces is probably Salty Tears, which is all about putting things in perspective. Sandy, a young Italian mapmaker, wants Christopher Columbus to reciprocate his feelings for him on the eve of his fateful voyage west. Columbus is able to imagine a world that is round rather than flat, but less ready to accept one where men can love men instead of women. Davis is at his wisest and funniest in this charmer.
There's a lot here, and Insinnia keeps it moving with minimal but helpful scenery elements and quick transitions between the plays. All of the actors have moments to show their skills, with some particularly effective work coming from Adam Auslander as "Lue" (short for Lucifer, in Garden Street), Hugo Salazar, Jr. (particularly as the man who finds himself on a leaf in Crossed Legged), and Christopher Frederick as Sandy in Salty Tears.
Pieces of a Playwright offers a nice introduction to the sweet and often profound world of Matthew Ethan Davis's plays, which we need to see more of on stage, and a great workshop for Insinnia and his actors to put their hard work the only place it can even really matter, in front of an audience.