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A CurtainUp Review
EST Marathon 2008 Series B

Ensemble Studio Theatre's 30th Festival of One-Act Plays
"Happy Birthday William Abernathy," "October/November," "The Great War," "Ideogram" and "Okay"

Ensemble Studio Theatre is at the midpoint of its 30th Marathon. It happens that this is also the tenth Marathon that I have reviewed. It is thus with no joy that I report that, with one significant exception, the present series offers little that would presage another 30 years.

That exception is Neil LaBute's surprising "The Great War," which manages to take a fairly hackneyed subject, the "divvying-up-the-goods" battle between a divorcing couple (portrayed by Laila Robins and Grant Shaud in what are the two best performances of the evening), and render it as something shocking, funny, penetrating, vivid and meaningful. I'm not going to spoil the surprise, though I'll say it has to do with the kids, and I'll just add that LaBute definitely knows how to land punches (of the non-physical sort) and still keep everyone strapped in their seat on the emotional roller-coaster. I wish I could say it's worth sitting through the other four plays, or even the other two before the intermission, to see it.

The opening play, Lloyd Suh's "Happy Birthday William Abernathy," begins with some promise, only to wander off into a riff out of nowhere, begun only after establishing the not-so-remarkable notion that 100 year old white men in the midwest sometimes get prickly about political correctness. Albert (Peter Kim) has been dispatched into the house to retrieve his titular great-grandfather (Joe Ponazecki), for whose centenary the family has gathered. The old man can't quite remember which "one" Albert is, but he can't avoid the fact that the boy's Asian, and that all sorts of people that didn't used to intrude into his world have now even intruded into the family blood line. But that's not what the play is about, it seems, as Mr. Abernathy has something he wants to confess, and the wheel stopped on Albert as the one to do the listening. Albert doesn't seem to care, and neither do we.

"October/November" introduces a 16 year old girl, Nikkie (Amelia McClain), a 13 year old boy, David (Gio Perez) and a bench. Although Anne Washburn's piece is quite funny, and her writing keenly observes the two teens, there is really no play here. (This, in fact, seems to be the theme of this series.) The girl speaks to the boy, and then leaves. The boy delivers a monologue. The girl returns. Repeat. Perez is particularly endearing, and though I wouldn't exactly call McClain that, she does a terrific job of conveying the cringe-worthy zone sweet sixteens find themselves in as they seek to become twenty-six or so overnight. Both actors deserve a real play in which to perform, and will probably get one someday.

"Ideogram" heads a few rungs down the ladder; if David Zellnik has a point, it's a mystery to me. A young man, Jasper (Bryan Fenkart), scribbles Chinese characters all over a birthday card for his friend, Drew (Pun Bandhu). Neither of them reads or writes Chinese, though Drew is of Chinese origin. Although Jasper says he just copied the letters and they mean nothing, Drew takes the card to an old Chinese woman, Wei (Siho Ellsmore), who says that Jasper has written a great work of Chinese literature. Inexplicably, Jasper now starts writing plays in Chinese, which are performed in China to great acclaim, but come under attack from the Chinese government. For safety reasons, Jasper moves into Drew's apartment. Drew dissappears. The play ends. Zellnik seems to aspire to something poetic; it is not achieved.

EST saves the most excruciating offering for last. It is impossible to resist saying that "Okay" is not okay. Set in a girl's restroom at a senior prom, there is nothing funny, clever, meaningful or otherwise worth even half the time we must devote to Taylor Mac's braying play. Stephanie (Susannah Flood) was just crowned prom queen, and it seems there is a fetus in her that's about to crown too. (That play on words, however, is mine. Corny as it may be, it's well beyond the grasp of this celebration of dumbness.) She will spend almost the entire duration of the rather lengthy play feigning her delivery atop one of the three commodes that constitute the set. For this, she deserves special mention; otherwise, I feel the young actors are better served by not having their names associated with the play. Three other girls and, perhaps not that surprisingly, three boys, will also visit the toilets, though most for reasons that they were not intended. Only one will learn of Stephanie's predicament, and he only after having given another boy a blow job in the adjoining stall. Two of the girls are snorting coke, one of the boys is drunk and will puke in one of the toilets, one couple seems to have found something constituting romance and, as a public service, we all learn that one should not drink if one plans to take Extacy. And that's all, folks. No, not quite. One of the cokeheads gets a nose bleed.

All of the directors manage what they are given pretty well, and the design elements are as good or better than in Marathons past. Maiko Chii has designed handsome sets that transitioned exceptionally smoothly, and should be particularly commended. Beyond that, EST, I know you can do better.

Happy Birthday William Abernathy
by Lloyd Suh
Directed by Deborah Hedwall
with Joe Paneseki and Peter Kim

by Anne Washburn
Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll
with Gio Perez and Amelia McLain

The Great War
by Neil LaBute
Directed by Andrew McCarthy
with Grant Shaud and Laila Robins

by David Zellnik
Directed by Abigail Zealey Bess
with Pun Bandhu, Bryan Fenkart, and Siho Ellsmore

by Taylor Mac
Directed by José Zayas
with Jessica Jade Andres, Kether Donohue, Susannah Flood, Danny Fernandez, Travis Hsieh, Olivia Mandell and Johnny Pruit

Set Design: Maiko Chii
Lighting Design: Evan Purcell
Costume Design: Suzanne Chesney
Sound Design: Shane Rettig
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including 1 intermission
Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 West 52nd Street, 2d Flr. (10/11 Avs.)
Telephone (212) 352-3101
May 23rd - June 20th, 2008; $18
REMAINING PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE: Tuesday May 23rd 8pm, Thursday, May 29 at 7pm, Saturday, May 31 at 7pm, Sunday, June 1 at 7pm, Monday, June 2 at 7pm, Sunday, June 8 at 2pm, Wednesday, June 11 at 7pm, Friday, June 13 at 7pm, Saturday, June 14 at 7pm, Sunday, June 15 at 2pm, Monday, June 16 at 7pm, Wednesday, June 18 at 7pm and Friday, June 20 at 7pm
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 5/25/08 performance
Schedule of Final 2008 Marathon Series

SERIES C: June 6 - June 28, 2008

"In Between Songs" by Lewis Black
"Japanoir" by Michael Feingold
"Piscary" by Frank D. Gilroy
"Flowers" by José Rivera
"A Very Very Short Play" by Jacquelyn Reingold

PERFORMS: Friday, June 6 at 7pm, Saturday, June 7 at 2pm, Saturday, June 7 at 7pm, Sunday, June 8 at 7pm, Monday, June 9 at 7pm, Thursday, June 12 at 7pm, Saturday, June 14 at 2pm, Sunday, June 15 at 7pm, Thursday, June 19 at 7pm, Saturday, June 21 at 2pm, Saturday. June 21 at 7pm, Sunday, June 22 at 2pm, Monday, June 23 at 7pm, Thursday, June 26 at 7pm, Friday, June 27 at 7pm and , Saturday, June 28 at 7pm

Click the link for review and information of Series A of this year's Marathon
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