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Marathon 2001: Series A
Ensemble Studio Theatre's 24th Annual Festival of One-Act Plays
"Arabian Nights", "Ukimwi", "Night Rules" and "Brown"
by Les Gutman
This year, E.S.T. celebrates the 24th anniversary of what has become an eagerly awaited late spring New York theater institution, its festival of one act plays. The formal rules are simple: the plays must be new, and short. (The longest usually run about half an hour.) A total of three groupings of plays is offered, each for a run of just two weeks. This year I celebrate my fifth anniversary of covering this excellent program. In honor of that milestone, I'm going to break with tradition and describe them in the reverse order of presentation. You'll see why.
The final play in this year's Series A is one of the best ever. In "Brown", a freshly scrubbed young man, Peter (Zach Shaffer), sits in the clubby office of Ira (Sam Freed), the head of a high-flying investment banking firm. He's on a job interview. We've all been on interviews that turned into nightmares: this one is truly the interview from hell. Peter left his prior job, at a lesser firm, and the reference Ira got from his former job suggests there were "control" issues. Ira's determined to unearth the mettle of the young applicant. He enlists the help of two of his associates, Maurie (Grant Shaud) and Mary (Susan Greenhill), in what becomes a bizarre, free-ranging (and, for the audience, brilliantly hysterical) experience. The source of the problem is that Peter is unwilling to answer the question Ira has posed: "If you have to have sex with your mother or a dog, which would you choose?" The trio have no intention of quitting until they get the answer. Cherie Vogelstein's script is a wonder: a sharp, breathtaking roller-coaster of shocking wit; Jamie Richards directs it perfectly, finding every resonant nuance; the four actors are delicious beyond words. You need read no more to justify the trek to the western edge of Hell's Kitchen.
My enthusiasm for the penultimate play, Billy Aronson's "Night Rules" might have been more obvious had I not been blown away so by the play that followed it. Also very keenly directed by Jamie Richards, it's a smart play offering much to love. Rob (Thomas Lyons) and his wife Becky (Katherine Leask) visit Ken (Joe Urla) and Andrea (Geveva Carr) on a Saturday night. The four adults are in the living room; their children are sequestered in the other room. There's a raging debate about the proper way to raise the kids. Ken and Andrea insist Rob and Becky are wrong-wrong-wrong to give in to their daughter's nightly crying by letting her into their bed and feeding her jelly doughnuts. The issue reaches the foreground when the child cries out for "mommy" from the other room and everyone gangs up on Becky, insisting she ignore the child's escalating pleas for attention. In a matter of minutes, the couples are arguing with themselves, there is some cross-bonding, Rob and Andrea end up passionately in each other's arms and double divorces loom. As attitudes come full circle, the discussion shifts to child custody, and Becky announces no one is going to be allowed in her bed. Fine comic performances all around, especially so from Katherine Leask, whose Becky becomes a crazed bundle of tightly-bound hysteria.
Just before the intermission, we get "Ukimwi", an interesting if not altogether accessible short piece about a young American, John (Holter Graham), who finds himself alone in a bar in Cairo on his birthday, and the Kenyan prostitute, Ukimwi (Nicole Leach), who tries in vain to get him to have sex with her. It's a stunning portrait of attitudes toward Americans in AIDS-ravaged Africa, written by Thomas Coash, who spent four years teaching playwriting at The American University in Cairo. Leach (who was terrific in Starmites 2001 that I reviewed recently) does a respectable if not altogether convincing job with her difficult multi-lingual role, and Graham is appealing as the young man who is sympathetic to the bullshit family tale of woe Ukimwi tries to sell him because of his own issues. A pair of revelations (hers more startling than his) compellingly burnish the significance of it all.
The curtain-raiser is a particularly disappointing throw-away from the pen of David Ives, whom I much admire but who has certainly not done much here. In "Arabian Nights", Norman (Christopher Duva), aided -- maybe -- by an interpreter (Anne O'Sullivan) enters a middle-eastern bazaar operated by Flora (Melinda Page Hamilton) to purchase a souvenir. Nurturing as well as thwarting a budding romantic attraction between the two by choosing what and what not to translate, the whole has no point to make and doesn't make it with a vengeance. Duva's just fine as the awkward tourist; the blond-and-blue Hamilton less so as the under-developed proprietor. The garishly-festooned O'Sullivan, deployed to much better effect in last season's "Lives of the Saints", the Ives offering in series B of the 2000 Marathon, is simply annoying, although it should be noted it's through no fault of her own.
Plenty of good stuff here prompt a return visit for Series B and C.
LINKS TO PRIOR SEASON'S MARATHON REVIEWS
97 Series C
98 Series A B C
99 Series A B
00 Series A B C