nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 12, 2012
Awkward Levity, a trio of one-act plays by Richard Hinojosa, offers just what its title promises. Each of these three pieces, in very distinct and surprising ways, finds what's darkly humorous about discomfiting situations, reminding us that existence is called "the human comedy" for a good reason.
The central item on the bill, "A Sharp Point," directed by Sheila Garson, speaks most directly to this idea. It's about two couples caught together in one of their apartments during an NYC blackout. As the play begins, they've been stuck there for a while already, and at least one of the young men, Shep, has had too many beers. When Shep tells a joke that's in very questionable taste—and the other young man, Kurt, laughs at it—the mood turns tense and then angry.
The evening's opener, "Five Foot Shelf" (directed by Jason Griffith), is about two men with a history who find themselves alone together in the early moments of a party: Manny is the host, and Vivian ("V") is an unwanted guest, invited by Manny's wife Carmen. V's every move seems to provoke Manny, though we don't know why. But a discussion of the contents of Manny's bookshelf, and what they truly signify, ensues—and it not only brings about a kind of rapprochement between the two men but may prove pivotal in Manny's personal growth. I liked this piece the best among the three, not least because of how grounded in reality Hinojosa's writing is here: self-realizations really do get triggered by the oddest things at the oddest times, and situations rarely resolve themselves neatly, and all of that is reflected in this smart, brief play.
The show ends with its most darkly comic piece, "Back Hand Grief," which is directed by Hinojosa himself. We're backstage at a small theater in a city that's not New York. In the bathroom, the leading man of the current production (Arthur Miller's The Crucible) has hanged himself. Hinojosa mines the cliches of farce and the human heart as he explores how four of the surviving company members will deal with this crisis. It feels like Hinojosa's intent here is it make the audience laugh in spite of itself, something that wasn't completely accomplished at the opening night performance I attended.
The writing throughout is sharp and intelligent, and even though there's a familiarity to all of the situations, Hinojosa surprises us in every case with an ending we aren't expecting or prepared for. (None of the plays remotely overstays its welcome, which is great.) Four actors—Jesse Presler, Rebecca Nerz, Jonathan Harford, and Lindsay MacNaughton—show off their range as the various characters, with particularly effective turns delivered by Presler as the jerk Shep and Nerz and MacNaughton as the two offended women in "A Sharp Point," and Harford as introspective Manny in "Five Foot Shelf."
Hinojosa, who also writes reviews regularly for nytheatre.com, is a fine playwright whose work I unfailingly admire and I was happy to see this hour-long collection at Under St. Marks. You can find out about an earlier, very funny play by Hinojosa, Panichorea, on Indie Theater Now.