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LETTERS TO EDITOR
Marathon 2003: Series B
Ensemble Studio Theatre's 26th Annual Festival of One-Act Plays
"Hi There, Mr. Machine," "The Changing of the Guard," "Washed Up On The Potomac," "Water Music" and "Woman At A Threshold, Beckoning"
by Les Gutman
I've often said there is no future in trying to handicap EST's Marathons. A few weeks ago, when I reviewed Series A of this year's Marathon, the strength of the evening was weighted in its first half. This time around, the balance shifted, and the cream of the crop rises after the intermission. So much for predictability?
Not entirely. One of the great Marathon treasures is its staging of juicy if rare short plays by well-known playwrights. This year, the two best known playwrights, John Guare and Tina Howe, provide the top offerings.
Ms. Howe's "Water Music" is a fanciful piece that takes place in the whirlpool of a New York City health club. The Latino lifeguard, Jesus (Juan Carlos Hernandez), snoozes; the lone patron, Roz (Lizbeth Mackay), an English teacher, kvetches about the water temperature; and suddenly Ophelia (Laura Heisler) materializes in the pool. Yes, Hamlet's Ophelia, still fully Elizabethan and just as whacked as ever. Jesus and Ophelia don't know quite what to make of each other; Roz moderates and in the end saves them from each other. It's funny and charming, with three nice performances, though conversance in Spanish as well as Shakespeare is somewhat valuable to the experience.
Guare's "Woman At A Threshold, Beckoning" requires familiarity only with the world in which we live. Originally performed as a part of Brave New World, the commemoration of the first anniversary of 9/11 at Town Hall, it finds John (Andrew Weems), who energetically narrates, serving as a grand juror. The humdrum of witnesses and votes on indictments is interrupted when an Arab woman (Miriam Laube) appears before the grand jury. She keeps looking at John as if she knows him, until he realizes he remembers her from a trip he took to Egypt. Is she a terrorist? John discovers the answer to a more important question: what is a terrorist? The play offers insight into the minds of those who performed the unimaginable acts at the World Trade Center. Will Pomerantz stages the large able cast (with much doubling by actors) at a boisterous pace, matched by Mr. Weems's surprisingly upbeat central performance. It's a meaningful work of topical theater.
Another reliable feature of many recent Marathons has been Leslie Ayvazian's self-performed solo pieces. Her effort this time, "Hello, Mr. Machine" is not among her best. Her performance is as appealing as ever, but her material lets her down. We find a teacher (Ms. Ayvazian) in a hotel room, recovering from a day of motivational speeches and the influence of a nutritionist. She's alone, attempting to make entries of daily activities and goals in a notebook (a motivational tool) but unable to get her mind off the vending machine in the hall. Its siren's call tempts her with one diet-busting snack after another, and she talks back, at times racing into the hall to have heated discussions with her nemesis. The comic content is a one trick pony; and though the idea is not without cleverness, the structure is overly reminiscent of her "Fifteen Notes" from the 2001 Marathon Series B (linked below).
The Marathon producers, to their credit, also expose the work of emerging playwrights. Two of the plays in this series fall in this category. Both show promise, though neither is a revelation. However, both showcase some performances that are delicious, and go far in making the entire evening worthwhile.
In "Changing of the Guards," Amy Staats introduces us to a grandmother, Mama Sue (Scotty Bloch), who has taken her two granddaughters, Constance (Julie Leedes) and Eleanor (Diana Ruppe), to London. For anyone who has ever traveled with someone with a different idea of what makes for a fun trip, it will ring true. Mama Sue wants to get up early and hit all the usual tourist destinations; the girls want to stay up late and experience the cooler side of London. It turns out what Mama Sue is really up to is attempting to relive fond memories of trips with her now-deceased husband. Scotty Bloch is wonderful but the play never rises far above its premise.
Hardly a day goes by that I don't hear the story of someone stuck in a menial job that keeps them from the elusive life they intended to have. Lynn Rosen's "Washed Up on the Potomac" sets this story in an ad agency, where a group of freelance proofreaders (Anne Torsiglieri, Sean Sutherland and Maria Thayer) wrestle with job security and a broader sense of self. There's not much here to take the play out of the humdrum category, except a well-hewn performance by Joan Rosenfels as their by-the-books boss, Deb.
As this year's Marathon reaches the finish line, let me add two notes of comparison to earlier series. First, on sets. One of the marvels of Marathons past has been the facility with which the many set changes have been accomplished. This year, the transitions have been longer and more complicated: not a good thing. Second, on structure. Past Marathons have included three series of two weeks each, usually of four plays each, with a total running time of generally two hours. This year, there are only two series lasting three weeks, and each includes five plays; the running time has extended to two hours and thirty minutes or longer. No explanation has been given for the shift (perhaps it is has economic reasons behind it, perhaps it is to permit a longer run), but it makes for a less enjoyable evening as well as depriving us of a couple of plays that would otherwise have been seen. I, for one, would be happy to see a reversion to the original approach.
LINKS TO PRIOR SEASON'S MARATHON REVIEWS
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
03 Series A
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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