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A CurtainUp Review
Marathon '98: Series B
Ensemble Studio Theatre's 21st Annual Festival of New One-Act Plays
"Donut Holes in Orbit," "The Trio," "How to Plant a Rose" and "Scrapple"

by Les Gutman

My review of Series A of this Marathon (linked at the bottom of the page) is replete with references from agricultural ("The yield from E.S.T.'s first crop this year is high." "The cream of the crop follows the intermission.") and eating ("After this red meat main course, 'Mr. Charles' may seem the perfect dessert." "these plays open this series with exceptionally high standards that leave one hungry in anticipation of what is yet to come"). Now that I have had a second helping of Marathon '98 plays, I can't help but wonder if I had a premonition of things to come. Of the four short plays in Series B of Ensemble Studio Theatre's Marathon '98, three involve eating and the fourth takes place in a garden.

Actually, the analogies prepared me in other ways for these plays. As in farming, not every seed grows into a mature plant, and as with adventurous eating, all meals cannot be equally satisfying. None of the second group of plays is as strong as the best of the first set.

"Donut Holes in Orbit" takes place in the Modesto, California donut shop of Mrs. Lee (Wai Ching Ho), a single mother from Hong Kong. Her daughter, Alice (Jina Oh), is dating a caucasian young man, Eric (Paul Whitthorne), whose impending move causes her to consider love, family and her own life. It also prompts Joey (Barney Cheng), the boy who works for Mrs. Lee and who is also Alice's good friend, to announce he secretly loves her. The play ends in a sort of new age revelation about how each of us is the center of the universe. It serves to remind us that the play, which relies repeatedly on narration devices to explain itself, has many loose ends but no center.

Excellent performances by Laurence Luckinbill and Janet Zarish as a symphony conductor, David, and his violinist/lover, Helena, cannot redeem children's writer Shel Silverstein's sophomoric and yet condescending play, "The Trio". It takes place in a fancy restaurant where he has invited her to announce she is being demoted, putatively because her playing is off, but presumably because her dual status is diverting him. A string trio of three similar-looking women of varying ages performs (actually, and divertingly, fake-performs) on a raised platform behind the table. It unfolds that the women are all previous demotees, a fact that is to be painfully reiterated as Helena quietly joins them once David's young new protegee, Claudia (Elizabeth Page), arrives.

"How to Plant a Rose," the most successful of the evening's efforts, weaves a family's history around the fine art of cultivating roses. A grandmother (Delphi Harrington) teaches her granddaughter (Bronwyn Maloney) how to plant a rose. For her, the family's rose bushes are like pages from an album, forcing thoughts about her family's past which she now passes on to her granddaughter. It is essentially a monologue, touchingly rendered, and a lesson so realistically rendered the familiar smell of the good earth wafts through the audience.

From the moment it begins, you know "Scrapple" is going to be a bitter pill. Jack (William Wise) is sitting in the worn-out kitchen of his Pennsylvania home. It's 2:30 A.M. and his daughter, Annie (Molly Price), returns from the wedding of one of her girlfriends, to the guy she used to date. She's a big, homely young woman. To understand how Jack treats her, look up the word "nurturing" in an antonym dictionary and contemplate all of the entries. He had physically abused her now-deceased mother. The portrait rendered, however unpleasant, is well-wrought. It concludes with a crisis that's perhaps a bit more disgusting than need be, followed by a resolution that is so sudden and inexplicable that it can only make one hope the playwright is at work on a second act.

As was the case in the first offering, design elements were first-rate. Well-lit, evocative sets were installed with a minimum of fuss, and costumes were carefully targeted to bolster the playwrights' senses. (Particularly noteworthy was Annie's bridesmaid dress in "Scrapple," the kind that's overpriced at any price since it will never be worn again.) Likewise, the sound design, before, during and between the plays, was well-matched to theme.

On to the finale...
by Prince Gomolvilas 
Directed by Charles Karchmer 
with Wai Ching Ho, Paul Whitthorne, Jina Oh and Barney Cheng 

by Shel Silverstein 
Directed by Art Wolff 
with Laurence Luckinbill, Janet Zarish and Elizabeth Page 

by Elizabeth Diggs 
Directed by Mark Roberts 
with Delphi Harrington and Bronwyn Maloney 

by Jennifer Mattern 
Directed by Susann Brinkley 
with Molly Price and William Wise 

Set Designs by Ted Simpson 
Costume Designs by Sally Kruteck 
Lighting Designs by Greg MacPherson 
Sound Designs by Laura Grace Brown 
Ensemble Studio Theatre 549 West 52nd Street (10/11 AV) (212) 247- 4982 
May 20 - 31, 1998 
Reviewed by Les Gutman May 23, 1998
For link to CurtainUp's review of Series A, click here.
The final Marathon '98 installment, 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. (Look for CurtainUp's review.)
©Copyright May 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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