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A CurtainUp Review
Marathon '98: Series A
Ensemble Studio Theatre's 21st Annual Festival of New One-Act Plays
"Dream," "The Hundred Penny Box," "Killing Hand" and "Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach"

by Les Gutman

Back in the days when I was still practicing law, a client once commented that our briefs were not very brief. The quick-tongued partner with whom I was working replied, "You can't afford to pay us to make them brief," revealing the truth, in law as well as in theater, that it is easier to write at length than with economy. Ensemble Studio Theatre's annual festival celebrates plays and playwrights that take the harder road. What's most remarkable about these short plays (I've started to resist calling them one-acts because the best new full-length plays I've seen this year also lack an intermission) is that the really good ones give you as much substance, and satisfaction, as their longer cousins, without demanding nearly as much patience.

The yield from E.S.T.'s first crop this year is high. It opens weakly with "Dream," essentially a monologue of single suburban mom angst. It's set in the dream state between the first snooze alarm and the last blast of the clock. A woman (Joanna P. Adler) confronts the demons of her day in the person of a ridiculous monster (Peter Lewis), who makes noise, cavorts and, toward the end, removes his mask and utters the single word "Robitussin" a few times. Kindly, there's not a lot of time between the alarms.

The second play is an improvement. It's about the bond between a young boy (Chad Tucker) and his 100 year old great-great aunt (Sarallen), complicated by his mother's (Denise Burse) antagonistic relationship with the old woman, who raised her husband and now lives with them. "The Hundred Penny Box" focuses on the aunt's prized possession, the box to which she has added a penny minted in each year of her life, and through which she conveys the meaning of a century of African-American history to the child. Although it's clumsily staged, and a bit longer than necessary, excellent performances by both of the women, and a warm, elegant story, redeem it.

The cream of the crop follows the intermission. Although the final play, Paul Rudnicks's "Mr. Charles", is certainly the most polished, and commercially viable, of the quartet, (and will undoubtedly make the rounds of the gay theater circuit), it is the more serious "The Killing Hand" that impresses the most. A dinner party in the Pottery Barn-furnished Park Slope apartment of a math professor (Ted Neustadt) and his Serbian wife (Sylva Kelegian) honors the visit of her brother, Juraj (Jason Kolotourous), who has been living in Srebrenice. Juraj has a severely injured hand, which he says resulted from an exploding grenade. Raw nerves are exposed when one of the guests (Grant James Varjas) starts to tell a provocatively parallel story he read in the media about Serbian atrocities. Although it begins with some unfortunately banal milieu-setting, once it shifts into gear, it is an enormously thoughtful piece that floats an array of ideas for its audience to ponder. Cast with near-perfection, and staged and performed with delicate accuracy, audiences hopefully will not be off-put by of its unpleasant subject matter.

After this red meat main course, "Mr. Charles" may seem the perfect dessert. It's as sharp a piece of hysterical barbed wire as anyone could have written, unrelentingly giving its audience something to laugh at. Mr.Charles is the self-described last-of-a-breed unless, as he says, Stephen Spielberg finds some of Paul Lynde's DNA to make more of them. Peter Bartlett plays Mr. Charles with unrestrained joy. He was asked to leave New York because he was too "nelly," and has now set up shop in Palm Beach with his young "ward," Shane (Ross Gibby) and a politically incorrect cable TV show called "Too Gay" which is beamed back to New York. Mr. Charles' gives due cause for his against-the-grain positions; for example, he's against gays in the military; he'd rather make remarks, not war. Whatever his stands or his reasons, he is as hated by gay groups as by homophobes. Rudnick's writing is neither trite nor superficial, no mean feat considering the subject matter. "Mr. Charles" is neither an exercise in gay camp or just a piece of candy (although it is pretty delicious). You see there's a point to all the splendid joke and Rudnick doesn't allow it to get lost in the merriment.

Everything about this package of plays has been well-considered and arranged. Evocative sets and costumes support each play, and set transitions between plays have been as well orchestrated as the plays themselves. With no overriding theme or relationship other than their newness, these first offerings open this very worthy annual series with exceptionally high standards that leave one hungry in anticipation of plays yet to come.
by Billy Aronson 
Directed by Jamie Richards 
with Joanna P. Adler and Peter Lewis 

by Barbara Sundstrom, adapted from the book by Sharon Bell Mathis 
Directed by Woodie King Jr. 
with Chad Tucker, Sarallen, Denise Burse and Kim Sullivan 

by David Zellnik 
Directed by Chris Smith 
with Sylva Kelegian, Ted Neustadt, Jason Kolotourous, Grant James Valjas and Chris Lutkin 

by Paul Rudnick 
Directed by Christopher Ashley 

Set Designs by Austin K. Sanderson 
Costume Designs by Amela Baksic (who did double duty as dialect coach for "The Killing Hand") 
Lighting Designs by Greg MacPherson 
Sound Designs by Laura Grace Brown 
Ensemble Studio Theatre 549 West 52nd Street (212) 247- 4982 
May 6 - 17 , 1998 
Reviewed by Les Gutman May 12, 1998
Although the run of Series A is brief, two further installments in the Marathon follow closely on its heels. Look for reviews of both. The details are: 

Series B runs May 20 - 31 featuring "The Trio" by Shel Silverstein, "How to Plant a Rose" by Elizabeth Diggs, "Donut Holes in Orbit" by Prince Gomolvilas and "Scrapple" by Jennifer Mattern. 

Series C runs June 3 - 14 featuring "Jade Mountain" by David Mamet, "Plan Day" by Leslie Ayvazian, "The Earthquake" by Elinor Renfield and Joyce Carol Oates, "Mary Macgregor" by Keith Alan Benjamin and "Prelude to a Crisis" by Ari Roth. 
©Copyright May 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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