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A CurtainUp Review
EST 2011 Marathon of One-Act Plays, Series A
By Les Gutman
The first series of plays in this year's Marathon surprised me greatly, but not in the way I like to be surprised. The first three plays — carrying us to a second intermission — required close to two and a half hours. To make matters worse, the first two were by far the weakest links in the evening's chain of five plays. And this is very unfortunate, because the final two offerings were exceptionally interesting plays that were well-suited to the short play format, and close to a third of the audience at the performance I attended had given up by that point. In addition, the centerpiece play, a restaging of a 1980 Obie-winning Marathon play by Romulus Linney (a frequent Marathon contributor who, as many know, died this year) would have been appreciated much more had the audience's patience not been tested by the two long unsatisfying works that preceded it.
In the curtain-raiser, Ben Rosenthal's "Ten High," we observe, in alternating scenes in a bar, two hit men (Ned Eisenberg and Danny Mastrogiorgio) and a couple of college professors (Tina Benko and Chris Ceraso) who are a husband and wife dealing with an accusation of marital infidelity. Both pairs have a lot of angst, and seemingly nothing in common, though before the play ends, their paths will cross. There's a lot of promise in the set-up and the play's structure, and John Giampietro stages it nicely, but there's not much of a pay-off. The performances are quite good, though the hit men are sometimes a little hard to understand through their thickly-dosed accents.
"School Night" by J. Holtham, never seems to getting around to its point and thus ends up being about nothing. Ammon (Curtis M. Jackson) and Lucy (Lucy DeVito) are highschoolers with the usual hard time of fully enjoying each other's company. When they finally get together at his house, while his parents are out of town, his long-gone stoner brother (Lance Rubin) shows up to bury a cat. The underwhelming play doesn't prevent us from seeing some very fine performances by all three young actors.
Linney's play, "Tennessee," stands heads and shoulders above the others in literary terms. Ably directed by the sure hand of Harris Yulin, it is a touching and often quite funny story of a family (Rufus Collins, Julie Fitzpatrick and Eamon Foley) that has recently acquired a Carolina farm and thinks it understands the meaning of following one's dreams -- until an old woman (Kristen Lowman) wanders onto the farm to give them a run for their money. The play is really the old woman's, and Lowman gives a memorable performance. (The others perform well also.) As she conveys her story, we also meet the man she married to help her follow her dream (Scott Sowers) and a neighbor woman (Helen Coxe). Although I'd quibble that it goes on too long, "Tennessee" is true to form, and my complaint would have evaporated had I not already endured two lengthy and tedious one acts as noted above. This is also a good point at which to mention another surprise in the evening: while I have often marvelled at how seamlessly EST has managed to transition between its Marathon offerings, the sets for this series, while effective, were overly cumbersome and the resulting transitions slow; "Tennessee"'s were the worst offenders in this regard.
Reaching the home stretch, frequent Marathon contributor Billy Aronson gives us his "In the Middle of the Night," a thought-provoking piece about a college student (Jared McGuire) who breaks into an empty campus building one night for some privacy as he explores some fantasies with a girl (Irene Longshore) with whom he seems to have a special relationship. When his mother and step-father (Helen Coxe and Scott Sowers) oddly show up, we soon discover something we certainly weren't expecting. It's neatly done, and McGuire in particular impresses. Kudos to director Robert Davenport and also to Wendy Seyb for some perfectly suited choreography that ends up being quite important to the show.
The final play of the night, Qui Nguyen's "Bike Wreck," was the best of the bunch. Cleverly directed by John Gould Rubin, it features a man (Michael Louis Wells, in a punchy, well-considered performance) who both narrates and serves a pivotal role in what becomes a troubling meditation on the state of post-Guiliani New York. Our path into this world is through two ubiquitous presences in the city -- a bike messenger (Charlie Hudson, III) and a Chinese delivery boy (Arthur Acuna) -- as they intersect in shocking ways with one of the invading hordes of rich folk moving in on their turf. Hudson and Acuna are phenomenal together, and make it well worth the wait. Everything about this play is right -- and it serves as a demonstrable lesson for the others.
The short one-act play remains a terrific genre, and I'm still convinced nobody does it better than EST. There were some detours in this year's first offering; let's hope they can serve as an object lesson for the future.
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