For the finale of its Marathon '98, Ensemble Studio Theatre turns to three high-profile members of its ensemble (Mamet, Ayvazian and Oates) and two "outsiders". Although it's not clear that any common unifying theme drove the selection of the plays, a good umbrella title for the collection might be "Finding Ways to Express Familiar Feelings". The psychological content is pervasive.
One of the nice things about grouping one acts, as E.S.T. has done in its Marathons, is that weaknesses in one play can accentuate the positives in others. One might conclude that producing plays about familiar subjects is low-risk. Nothing could be further from the truth. It has one of the greatest potential perils: banality. So when a play about a familiar subject instead achieves originality, as several do here, it is particularly rewarding and exciting. On the whole, this assemblage is both satisfying and thought-provoking. Of the five short plays presented, I'd judge three winners and two, well, let's call them less successful -- not bad for a night at the theater.
It takes either a good sense of humor or a certain amount of chutzpah to start the ball rolling with a play called "Prelude to a Crisis". Happily, the play is not a harbinger. I found "Prelude" theatrically unappealing and generally unaffecting. To be fair, the audience didn't seem to share my lack of enthusiasm. They laughed (hard and often) at what I saw as forced cleverness. The first several minutes work fairly well as middle-of-the-road standup comedy. The subject (Greg Germann) is a married playwriting teacher who has invited a student (Melinda Page Hamilton) to his hotel room for some additional work on her script. If this seems a popular scenario for playwrights, it is. It was explored in far more depth by Tom Noonan in his play Wang Dang (see link to the review below). The material here becomes less funny as it becomes more theatrical: once the student shows up, first as an imaginary figure and then as the genuine article, the teacher becomes the brunt of his own jokes. We can't take the angst-ridden, cynical teacher seriously when we need to, and the humor can no longer sustain him. For her part, Hamilton does her high-spirited best, carefully developing the innocently curious yet consciously seductive student.
Leslie Ayvazian's poetic "Plan Day" stands in sharp contrast to "Prelude," polishing familiar situations into gems. It's a miniature masterpiece: finely crafted and crisply performed. There are four scenes, all performed solo by Ayvazian, who made a splash last season with her play Nine Armenians (see link to review below). She journeys through the life of an adult woman as she matures from her twenties to her seventies. She begins as the type of mother who thinks to take a megaphone to the beach to direct and protect her children. She ends as a volunteer "in a place for oldies" where, with the public address system microphone firmly in hand, she directs the other residents. Ayvazian's solo performance brims with warmth and wears a broad smile.
The pre-intermission program ends with "The Jade Mountain". It is pure Mamet, providing enigmatic dialogue and nothing more. Two nameless men, called A (James Murtaugh) and B (Chris Ceraso) -- in order to distinguish one from the other, I had to refer to the labels on the press photographs -- sit in simple chairs separated by a low table and talk. B seems to be a psychotherapist, and A seems to be his patient, battling demons from childhood and from Vietnam and seeking, naturally, contentment. It is a play in the spirit of Cryptogram and the last of the three one-acts included in Mamet's Broadway offering of the past season, The Old Neighborhood (see link to review below). In other words, audience members unwilling to play Mamet's game and give attention to his foray into phenomenology will have a much-smaller bag of ideas to take home with them. Those up to the game will, on the other hand, be richly rewarded. Regardless, Murtaugh in particular is excellent.
"The Earthquake" presents another exceedingly familiar set of circumstances, but precious little new insight. A divorced couple, Sylvia (Patrica Mauceri) and Donald (Joseph Siravo), fret over their son's separation anxiety, which seems to have been accelerated by events surrounding a recent earthquake. The boy, Roy, is portrayed by thirteen year old Shelton Dane, the only breath of fresh air in this play. His parent's have sent him to an art therapist. Roy's explanations of his drawings are the play's most interesting moments. After a Kafka reference, some odd conversation about survivor guilt and an equally routine sidebar about the competitive relationship between Donald and Sylvia's current husband, Eliot (James DeMarse), the father offers the boy a baseball metaphor to live by and the play comes to an end. Not a minute too soon.
In counterpoint is the sad but especially clever "Mary MacGregor". Here again, we have a familiar situation (grief on the loss of a spouse), handled with sensitivity, charm, humor and imagination. The play's exposition is terrific, elegant and surprising. I'm going to resist saying much more, not because there's not a lot to say but rather because I don't want to spoil it. Suffice it to say that the acting (Anne O'Sullivan as Mary and Andrew Weems as David) and the directing (Joe White) are top-notch.
The Marathon program, of which this is the concluding part for the year, is a celebration of an easily marginalized aspect of the theater. E.S.T. demonstrates that if the one-act suffers neglect, it's our loss.
|PRELUDE TO A CRISIS
by Ari Roth
Directed by Mark Nelson
with Greg Germann and Melinda Page Hamilton
by Leslie Ayvazian
Directed by Curt Dempster
with Leslie Ayvazian
THE JADE MOUNTAIN
by David Manet
Directed by Curt Dempster
with James Murtaugh and Chris Ceraso
adapted by Elinor Renfield and Joyce Carol Oates from a story by Oates
Directed by Elinor Renfield
with Patrica Mauceri, Joseph Siravo, Shelton Dane and James DeMarse
by Keith Alan Benjamin
Directed by Joe White
with Anne O'Sullivan and Andrew Weems
Set Designs by Anne Waugh
Costume Designs by Julie Doyle
Lighting Designs by Greg McPherson
Sound Designs by Laura Brown
Ensemble Studio Theatre 549 West 52nd Street (10/11 AV) (212) 247- 4982
June 3 - 14, 1998
Reviewed by Les Gutman June 4, 1998