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A CurtainUp Review
Ensemble Studio Theatre's Marathon of One Act Plays (Series b)
After having seen Ensemble Studio Theatre's (EST's) strong "Series A" offerings ( my review), I had high hopes for the next installment. With a few exceptions, Series B, in comparison, is mostly a letdown.
Bekah Brunstetter's not-quite-there-yet "Daddy Took My Debt Away" looks at three twenty-somethings struggling with their attitudes toward the various forms of debt they've accrued in their short lives. This group also happens to work for a debt collection department of a credit card company; they are tasked with the duty to twist the arms of others to pay off their debts. Ms. Brunstetter's piece, which features some very improbable collection calls, can't figure out if it's a comedy or a drama; in the end, it's neither.
In Leslie Ayvazian's unintentionally icky "The Favor," Ellen (Janet Zarish) cajoles and guilts her husband Ralph (Grant Shaud) into kissing her unconscious, dying mother on the lips. Ellen believes that her Mother will somehow comprehend the kiss to be a farewell of sorts from her first "love"- a four year old Parisian boy she met at roughly the same age. Ms Ayvasian is clearly trying to pull the strings to our hearts but inadvertently pulls the creepy alarm.
The ickiness level is taken up a notch when Ryan Dowler's "Something Like Loneliness" presents us with two apartment-dwelling neighbors who keep the sounds of their lives (orgasms, coffee sips, putting on clothes...) locked up in Tupperware containers for later enjoyment. (Haven't these people heard of tape recorders?) "Something Like Loneliness" is another wannabe tearjerker that, unfortunately, just makes you say "Yuck."
Then, suddenly, the next three plays partially redeem this series, starting with Cori Thomas' aptly titled "Waking Up," which movingly juxtaposes the narratives of two women who couldn't be more dissimilar: a privileged white New Yorker (Amy Staats) and a poor African villager (Lynette R. Freeman). Both are learning to cope with the diagnosis of breast cancer. Ms Freeman gives a particularly stirring and evocative performance as a woman facing poverty, community ignorance, and superstition about the nature of her disease.
The fifth play, Sharr White's "A Sunrise in Times Square," is not only the strongest play (by far) of Series B, it's the best in this year's festival to date. Driven by superb acting from Joseph Lyle Taylor as Marky, a corporate fire safety officer, and Julie Fitzpatrick as Madeline, an office worker who feels safe in his presence, the play embraces and illustrates basic and common existential fears about love, death, and psychological suffering. Mr. Taylor's Marky is a go-along to get-along blue collar nice guy who deserves a great girl. Madeline is a slightly neurotic nice girl who's afraid to open up to anyone. That is, until she isn't anymore. You'll wince at the embarrassing missteps of their encounter and laud their perseverance in the search for the right one in life.
The final play, Robert Askins' "Love Song of An Albanian Sous Chef," is a funny and clever crowd pleaser, but it's anti-climactic in the wake of Mr. White's play. A full-length version of it could be a dinner theater staple someday. And it's even about dinner; Eddie (Andy Nogasky) has been secretly in love with bartender Billy (Danielle Slavick). On her last day working in the restaurant, Eddie decides to prepare a miraculous feast for her, each course a different love spell. Employing aspects of magic realism (the food talks thanks to a puppet master embedded in the restaurant's bar), Ms. Slavick is wonderful as the juicy and sassy Billy (think Fran Drescher with a little Sopranos in her), and holds this play together with her caustic wit.
As in Series A, the sets, courtesy of Nick Francone, are fluid and impeccable; watching the graceful set changes is like watching a work of art. Any playwright should feel thrilled to have one of Mr. Francone's sets enhance his or her piece.
Despite Mr. White's gem and the relatively stronger finish, most of these plays left me hoping that Series C will wrap this year's festival on a high note.
Slings & Arrows-the complete set
You don't have to be a Shakespeare aficionado to love all 21 episodes of this hilarious and moving Canadian TV series about a fictional Shakespeare Company