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A CurtainUp Review
Marathon 2003: Series A
Ensemble Studio Theatre's 26th Annual Festival of One-Act Plays
"Memento Mori," "Of Two Minds," "A Blooming of Ivy," "The Honeymakers" and "Coda"

by Les Gutman

This is the 26th time the Ensemble Studio Theatre has invited the public to celebrate the arrival of Spring by trekking west for its Marathon of one acts, and I'm pleased to note that it is the seventh time in a row I've accepted the invitation. Once again, I'm glad I did.

As seems to be the case with almost every Marathon, the results are mixed. EST has altered the odds somewhat this year by a change in format. Instead of its usual four plays in each of three series, there are now five plays in two series. (They've also added a week to the run of each series.)

The strength of this series is front-loaded. The three plays performed before the intermission are by far the best of the lot, and the middle offering of those three is the best overall. It's called "Of Two Minds" and was written by Billy Aronson and directed by Jamie Richards. It is the fifth time the two have paired to present a Marathon offering, and for the third year in a row the result is truly exceptional. Aronson has demonstrated he has a keen sense of what makes a good one act and here that is combined with a deliciously prankish sense of humor to produce a thoroughly satisfying, laugh-out-loud funny yet thoughtful play. One might call it a variation of La Ronde but that underestimates it. Kathy (Geneva Carr) and Elizabeth (Annie Campbell), single mother and her daughter, begin innocuously enough, sitting around after dinner and not getting along (as mothers and adolescent daughters are wont to do). A series of varyingly inappropriate encounters are married with coincidence to marvelous effect, twisted and turned until they nearly explode.

I'll try not to spoil the effect by detailing here, so let me just say that the other parties to this enterprise are Todd (Ian Reed Kesler), part-time school teacher at Elizabeth's school and part-time proofreader in Kathy's office; Buck (Brad Bellamy), Todd's father (with whom he gets along about as well as Elizabeth does with Kathy) who is also Kathy's boss; and Matt (Conor White), Buck's young son to whom Elizabeth is a tutor. Everything is niftily staged by Ms. Richards, and the performances are swell all around. (Ms. Campbell, a recent NYU graduate, deserves special commendation for finding an original path for expressing the teen zeitgeist.)

The title of Susan Kim's "Memento Mori" may seem a little inapt, but the performances of Celilia deWolf as an aged eccentric show-biz lady, Kitty (with the compulsory turban and nostalgia), and Amy Staats as her straight-laced once-a-week dinner companion, Elaine, are right on target. The humor is abundant and off-kilter, and the staging by Abigail Zealey Bess is electrically but lovingly rendered. There's a Twilight Zone feel here as the pair sit in a restaurant that has been abandoned, to which they have arrived through empty streets and in which the background sounds are of sirens and explosions. An eerie person (or perhaps it's not a person) sticks their head in every once in a while but then disappears. When Elaine decides to go home, the two realize how much they mean to each other, and Kitty realizes how much her memories -- many of which center on a food infatuation -- mean to her.

The first half of the evening ends with a beautifully rendered latter-day romance set in a small farm town. Ivy (Phyllis Somerville) has been a widow for twenty years, during which time she managed to raise a family and run the family farm, all but forgetting about herself. A neighboring farmer, George (James Rebhorn), who lost his wife a year ago, arrives at Ivy's door not, as she assumes, to see if she wants to go in on a seed order with him, but to play out a crush that's been simmering since the two were teenagers. The farm-hardened Ivy bristles but eventually relents to a "ride to the edge of town". Some may find this story a bit cloying, but I found it charming and nicely helmed by Richmond Hoxie.

"The Honey Makers" is set in North London, and has one of those British themes that doesn't resonate especially well in America under the best of circumstances. It's set in a grocery owned by an Indian couple, Arjun (Thom Rivera) and Lalita (Cari Thomas) who are plagued by a gang of racist skinheads. (Only one (Jake Myers) appears in the shop.) There's nothing new or revealing in this confrontation, but playwright Deborah Grimberg (who is British but living in America) has added a twist: a swarm of bees has infested the couple's garden. A beekeeper (Bill Cwikowski) arrives to trap the swarm, and ends up getting caught in the crossfire with the skinheads. I suppose there is supposed to be an analogy in there somewhere but the dots never connect. The whole undertaking is also sabotaged by actors called upon to work out of their element.

In the final offering, Romulus Linney's "Coda," we are told that the title refers to the musical term which is said to mean "memories magnified". That's a bit of an embellishment: Webster's defines it simply as "a few measures added beyond the natural termination of a composition". And indeed this play is. The quintet of offerings would have done better without it. It tries to be painfully poetic as it looks at four people stuck in limbo, trying to fathom the lives they've just concluded. There's Thomas Lyons as a drinker turned a drunk; Joseph Siravo, as a soldier turned opportunist; Helen Coxe (who turns in the best performance) as a musician turned harsh critic; and Jane Welch (also a fine performance) as a medical researcher turned sadist. Nothing much comes of it except a dose of self-indulgence.

All of the design elements are fine, although some of the pieces call for more complex transitions than we are accustomed to in Marathons. The second series runs next month, and we've listed the promising lineup in a box below. As always, I'll look forward to it.

97 Series C
98 Series A B C
99 Series A B
00 Series A B C
01 Series A B C
02 Series A B C

by Susan Kim
Directed by Abigail Zealey Bess
with Cecilia deWolf and Amy Staats

by Billy Aronson
Directed by Jamie Richards
with Geneva Carr, Annie Campbell, Ian Reed Kesler, Brad Bellamy and Conor White

by Garry Williams
Directed by Richmond Hoxie
with James Rebhorn and Phyllis Somerville

by Deborah Grimberg
Directed by Tom Rowan
with Thom Rivera, Cori Thomas, Bill Cwikowski and Jake Myers

by Romulus Linney
Directed by Julie Boyd
with Thomas Lyons, Joseph Siravo, Helen Coxe and Jane Welch

Set Design: Jennifer Varbalow
Costume Design: Mary Margaret O'Neill
Lighting Design: Doug Filomena
Sound Design: Rob Gould
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including one intermission
Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 West 52nd Street, 2d Flr. (10/11 Avs.)
Telephone (212) 206-1515
Opening May 12, 2003 closing May 29, 2002
May 14-17, 19-24, 26-29 @8, May 17 and 24 @3; $35 (Marathon Pass to both series: $60)
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 5/12/02 performance

Details on the other series in Marathon 2003

Series B runs 6/1 -6/21 and features "Woman At A Threshold, Beckoning" by John Guare, directed by Will Pomerantz; "Washed Up On The Potomac" by Lynn Rosen, directed by Eileen Myers; "The Changing of the Guard" by Amy Staats, directed by Mark Roberts; "Water Music" by Tina Howe, directed by Pam Mackinnon; and "Hi There, Mr. Machine" by Leslie Ayvazian.

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