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A CurtainUp Review

Ensemble Studio Theatre's 23rd Annual Festival of One-Act Plays
Little Airplanes of the Heart, Light Years, 24 Years and Madmen

By Les Gutman

There are very few sure things in the theater, but here are two we've come to rely on: (1) once May Day comes around, Ensemble Studio Theatre's annual short play Marathon can't be far behind, and (2) we'll find the plays presented, by and large, among the most satisfying experiences of the year. The opening series this year continue the tradition. The common thematic thread -- not that one was planned -- seems to be "bonding."

"Little Airplanes of the Heart" (the title is from a Ferlinghetti poem) is about a young boy, Sam (A. J. Shively), and his Uncle John (William Wise) who died while living out his dream of flying a small plane from Cape Cod to Montana. It's a humorous, poignant take on the inter-generational male bonding that nurtures imagination. Because it's a "guy thing," it simultaneously perplexes Sam's mother (Elaine Bromka) and John's daughter, Jilly (excellently rendered by young Shayna Levine). A couple of clunky scenes involving the family are outweighed by Jilly's terrific scenes with her cousin, and an especially clever, well-directed letter exchange between Sam and the owner of the North Dakota farm (Peter Lewis, in a fine "of the earth" portrayal) where Uncle John's plane crashed.

Anyone who has lived through the first day of college dorm life will appreciate Billy Aronson's finely observed depiction of it in "Light Years." Arriving from far-flung home towns, the reinvention of these four freshmen begins even before the last parent's car door has slammed shut. Aronson's material is as consistently laugh out loud funny as it is apt. The playbill says it is the first act of a full-length play being developed at EST. It's a helluva preview of a coming attraction, and would be a marvelous pilot for a sit-com too. Anne Marie Nest is a tremendous find as Courtney, the in-charge roommate who guides Daphne (Sarah Rose) to the proper accessorizing of self and room to convey the "philosophy lit major who is not religious and [most of all] not taken." Paul Batholomew is adorably poetic as Doug, who seems to fare better in his first experience with Courtney than with iced tea. His roommate Michael (Ian Reed Kessler) is glib if less substantive, never funnier than when he is at a loss for words. Aronson provides lots of texture and a gut punch of a last note to bring them together. Bravo. We're primed to see more of the play and its young performers.
"24 Years" is the wonderful Leslie Ayvazian's home-bound celebration of a couple's 24th anniversary. The husband (a near-perfect Victor Slezak) is hobbling around because he tore a ligament in his knee playing soccer. (He's 47, she's 52.) The precise, hysterical ride Ayvazian takes us on in her portrayal of the wife is a gem, flowing seamlessly from affection to guilt to frustration to anger and ultimately to a renewal of the common bond of love. In other words, in about 24 minutes, she masterfully covers the full panoply of emotions that would account for 24 years of recollections. Written in the signature cadence that has marked Ayvazian's previous Marathon successes we've reviewed (links to all Marathon reviews below), "24 Years" is 24 carat gold. 

The final installment, "Madmen," finds an elderly 15th Century Spanish monk (Peter Maloney) ministering to a man who thinks he is Jesus (Ross Gibby). Romulus Linney, who wrote this new material as a part of a work called Spain, tries to uncover the meaning of madness against the backdrop of Torquemada and the Inquisition, and in the context of the Biblical story with which Maloney's character must reconcile it. The result has more of a blur than a focus -- certainly not Linney's best work -- and neither Maloney, as a subdued man of the cloth, nor Gibby as the predictable, slightly scary but essentially "good man who would be God if he could," provide much in the way of illumination. 
As always, EST's designers work wonders in transitioning from story to story effectively and quickly (on a dime, and on time), and there's no doubt that the trek to the west end of 52nd Street is well worthwhile. Two more series, described below, await. There's even a discounted package for those lucky enough to be able to see all three. 

97 Series C 
98 Series A B C 
99 Series A B 
by Steve Feffer 
Directed by Eliza Beckwith 
with Elaine Bromka, Shayna Levine, Peter Lewis, A. J. Shively, Ann Talman and William Wise 

by Billy Aronson 
Directed by Jamie Richards 
with Paul Bartholomew, Ian Reed Kessler, Anne-Marie Nest and Sarah Rose 

by Leslie Ayvazian 
Directed by Curt Demptster 
with Ms. Ayvazian and Victor Slezak 

by Romulus Linney 
Directed by Eileen Myers 
with Ross Gibby and Peter Maloney 

Set Designs by Warren Karp 
Costume Designs by Amela Baksic 
Lighting Designs by Greg MacPherson 
Sound Designs by Beatrice Terry 
Ensemble Studio Theatre 549 West 52nd Street (10/11 AV) (212) 247- 4982 
May 3 -
Time: approximately 2 hours with one intermission 
Reviewed by Les Gutman May 5, 2000

 Details on the next two series in the Marathon are: 

Series B runs May 17 - 28 featuring "Polish Joke" by David Ives, "The 17th of June" by Edward Allan Baker, "The Rothko Room" by Stuart Spencer and "Accident" by Peter Maloney. 

Series C runs May 31 - June 11 featuring "Alien Boy" by Will Scheffer, "The Final Interrogation of Ceaucescou's Dog" by Warren Leight, "Birth Marks" by Leslie Caputo, "Cannibals" by Heather Dundas and "Proof" by Jeff Reich

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