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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"
by Les Gutman
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.
Try onlineseats.com for great seats to
The Little Mermaid
Shrek The Musical
In the Heights
Playbill 2007-08 Yearbook
Leonard Maltin's 2008 Movie Guide