Vital Signs 10
nytheatre.com review by Scott Mendelsohn
December 15, 2005
With a twinkle in her eye, a librarian (played by the luminous Kathryn Grody) welcomes us into her domain. Searchers and researchers inhabit her library’s bottomless stacks, hunting for clues to their existential mysteries. A trucker (Happy Anderson) comes seeking something to fill his lonesome nights on the road. She leads him to some Steinbeck, in hardback: a tome hefty and intriguing enough to keep him away from prostitutes. A father (Michael Rudko), urgently wanting to offer his daughter spiritual guidance, sifts through footnotes and uncovers the story of an astronomer who lost his position over a morals charge. And a government functionary, tracking terrorists through their library records, abandons his mission when offered a quote from William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”
At its best, an evening of one-act plays serves up a sampler of such necessary slivers of poetry. Susan Miller’s Reading List, the final play of the evening, concludes with a cacophonous hymn to the vast world of ideas that suggests the evening’s accomplishments in miniature. Featuring the work of an accomplished group of playwrights, the Vital Theater Company nourishes and delights with the third series of their 10th Vital Signs New Works Festival.
In Ride, Eric Lane introduces a pair of young coworkers at a roadside fruit stand. I wondered why the poised, socially sophisticated Molly (Marina Squerciati) has the job. Her father has just given her a new car, suggesting the position is not a necessity. Carrie (Stacy Parker), on the other hand, seems quite at home in the dingy circumstances. Her awe and excitement at the enormity of Molly’s gift gushes forth in a torrent of adolescent enthusiasm. Parker ably sustains this adolescent aria, through which Lane etches a textured relationship between these two girls. Molly’s sullen silence proves to have deep roots, which are painfully exposed. At the climax of the play, in a moment of emotional freefall, Molly impulsively offers to give Carrie her new car. What would this mean for their relationship with each other, and their families? Director Daisy Walker stages this climactic moment perhaps a little too quickly for its fully resonance, but I admired the completeness of Lane’s structure nonetheless.
Andrea Lepcio’s Second Kiss also tells the story of an adolescent girl, this one more of a loner. Our narrator is just not interested in sex, and a bit befuddled by her peers who think of nothing else. Jenny Gamello is beautifully cast, playing the girl with a charming mix of sensitivity and guilelessness. She is well-matched when Jenna Kalinowki, playing an older girl of 18, swaggers in and helps her solve the mystery of the missing libido. Lepcio hits all the right notes, finding a surprising arrangement for this familiar story. Stephanie Gilman’s direction and clean light cues give the piece just the right pace and punctuation.
Garth Wingfield’s Please Have a Seat and Someone Will Be With You Shortly feels the least literary of any of the pieces, thanks to the light, conversational playing of Michael Anderson as David and Karin Sibrava as Sue. They are perfectly matched as gentle, mildly neurotic souls, patients whose therapists share the same waiting room. They have the same appointment time, and have seen each other every week for months. Until tonight, though, they have never spoken. Their flirtation unfolds out of the simple human presence of the two actors. At no point does the script bend to make a joke. And if the simple setup seems unambitious, it proves sufficient for Wingfield to invoke an adult relationship in its entirety.
Only Notes, by Kate Moira Ryan, fails to live up to its ambitions. The script shows potential: it is a broadly farcical piece about a narcissistic TV actress and her severe, pretentious Russian acting coach. Ryan writes smart riffs, appropriately exaggerating the stereotypes. Elizabeth Hess grounds the hysterics of the actress in a way that points toward the right style for the piece. But Susan Finch’s Russian émigré comes across sketchy and life-sized, when Ryan’s script calls for something larger. The timing of the performance pointed up where the audience should laugh, but to me the response felt obligatory, at best. For the piece to soar the way it wants to demands a deeper excavation of the characters’ base desires, and clowns skilled enough to act on them. This production has neither.
Which returns us to Miller’s Reading List, which digs deep, takes risks,
and succeeds beautifully. Whereas the other pieces are remarkably focused and
concise, this one is messy. Expansively directed by Cynthia Croot, it relies
less on logic and plot than on the root faith that calls plays into being.
Miller begins by invoking a sense of alarm, familiar among liberal theatre
audiences, at the current assaults on our freedom of speech. More than just
ringing that alarm, though, Miller portrays an array of characters, ordinary
people armed with their own particular slices of knowledge against the paranoia
behind these assaults.
In a series of fantastic encounters, Reading List cracks the naturalistic frame that has so far given shape to the evenings’ plays. With her story fragments and parables, Miller sermonizes in direct contradiction to the paranoia that assaults creative freedom. Grody’s librarian, the ringleader in Reading List, appears quite ordinary: a heavyset, frizzy-haired middle-aged woman who spends hours attending to the minutiae of her field. But the spark in Grody’s eyes ignites the ideas that have been flashing across the stage, not just in her play but throughout the evening. Led by Grody, the excellent cast shows Miller’s play to be a recipe for alchemy, transforming a brief evening of well-wrought scenes into theatrical gold.