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A CurtainUp Review
The Ensemble Studio Theatre's Marathon 2009: Series A

Everyone wants to know stories, right?—Mer, in PTSD
Sitting down to watch a collection of one-act plays is a bit like settling in for an evening of prime-time television. It might be a mixed bag, but it's a relief to know that you'll quickly be shuttled along to the next show. In the theater, blackouts and applause function as commercial breaks and these mental recesses work as cerebral palate-cleansers, preparing you for the limitless possibilities of the next show, including the possibility that you might actually like it.

The Ensemble Studio Theatre attempts to use this strategy to its advantage in its 31st annual marathon of one-act plays, assembling a diverse, genre-straddling collection of material, performers, and directors. Unfortunately, in Series A, few of the five pieces cohere into any satisfying shape, leaving you wishing that you could change the channel.

The best of the lot is Trickle—written by Kia Corthron and deftly directed by Will Pomerantz—a brief, illuminating enactment of trickle-down economics, in which we see the specter of unemployment slowly seep its way down the corporate (and domestic) ladder. It opens with the shrill voice of the blonde, batty Jean (the fantastic Geneva Carr) intoning an inane script of corporate drivel to her assistant, Christina (Shirine Babb), who finally asks, when Jean pauses to take a breath: "Am I losing my job?" Christina's job is safe, it seems (minus a requisite salary cut), but these cutbacks quickly slice into the lives of caterers, domestic workers, and nannies as well. That economic downturn affects everyone is no breaking news, of course, but Corthron's script artfully animates these very human casualties, while showing us how interconnected our lives have become, right down to our condiments ("Tell her one Tabasco is enough," the caterer complains about Jean's usual order). And in an intriguing turn, we watch one jilted, suddenly in-demand domestic worker use the system to her advantage, choosing to work for a Chinese family because, she claims, "I know where homeland security truly lies."

For the Love of God, St. Teresa—written by Christine Farrell and directed by Deborah Hedwall—cracks open with a wallop, as Sister Mary Teresa (Christine Farrell) shoves a surly, sassy female student into a locker room and locks the door. Apparently the sins of Colleen (Lucy DeVito) have escalated from an act (teased hair, thick eye makeup) to a performance (clinging to older boys in public), and Sister Mary Teresa wants to convince her to "never serve a boy like that again." (Although, as Colleen argues, the boy in question is slated to play Jesus in the upcoming Passion Play and therefore must have some inherent value.) Their conversation quickly devolves into verbal and physical combat, and the Sister's influence over Colleen is remarkable not for the predictable things she says ("Learn to follow your inner thoughts, pray"), but for what she does, stripping off her habit and forcing Colleen to put it on and look in the mirror. In the end, this is just a retread story of a rebellious girl in a Catholic school in New Jersey in 1963 who eventually sees the light, but when DeVito gazes into that mirror, you wonder where else Farrell might have taken this story.

Garrett M. Brown's Americana—stylishly directed by Linsay Firman—also leaves you wanting more. It's set in 1958 in the living room of a suburban home in Connecticut where we meet a pair of perfect parents and their perfect son. It doesn't take long for the glossy sitcom sheen of the prologue to split open and reveal an intriguing, bizarre, and jumbled episode. When the salesman Mr. Self arrives, peddling encyclopedias, he seems to unlock a series of selective truths, which the actors communicate directly to the audience and, obliquely, to each other. The parents each suspect that their grinning 10-year-old son Gary might be gay—he uses Playboy as inspiration for his drawing, but is he just nurturing his artistic talent? Brown seems to have borrowed these parents from a Christopher Durang script—gruff, crass father; dim, sweet mother—and also toys with time and structure in a Durangian style as the play moves in and out of a metatheatrical mode. In the end, you lose patience with trying to piece together the play's dueling tones and characters. The performers, fortunately, turn in lovely nuanced performances all around, including the excellent Miles Bergner, who, as Gary, makes his professional theatrical debut in this production.

The performances are also not a problem in the frustrating PTSD. Written by Tommy Smith and directed by William Carden, this monotonous, overlong production envelops itself in an endless stream of woe. The plot is familiar: a steely-eyed soldier, Riles (Haskell King), returns home to reconnect with his family, with all of the awkwardness you might expect. His relationship with his father (Jay Patterson) is strained, and his sister, Mer (Stephanie Janssen), seems to be suffering from PTSD of her own, possibility brought on by her intense worry about his safety. The story plods along, offering little enlightenment along the way. After Riles is reunited with a former paramour, Cindy (the excellent Julie Fitzpatrick), they sleep together on the couch and wake up the next morning to eat breakfast with his father and sister. Do we really need on-stage food, multiple set changes, a visceral mental breakdown, and an uncomfortable dry-humping scene to tell this story? In fact, do we really need to see this story at all?

The consequences of a different type of war plague the equally overlong Face Cream, which opens with a promisingly pert argument between a husband (Bruce MacVittie) and wife (Paula Pizzi) after she runs out of her favorite expensive face cream. Their battle, however, only spins its wheels. Maggie Bofill's script works the couple into a frenzy, but their argument is frustratingly circular, percolating with profanity and the usual prosaic misunderstandings of a married couple. Director Pamela Berlin doesn't do much to maneuver the actors into satisfying interchanges; instead of clearly calibrating this warfare, the actors execute a veritable scream-fest of stereotypes: MacVittie stomps about with hunched shoulders, and Pizzi's eyes seem to be on the verge of popping out of her head. The argument finally culminates in a tango that is clearly meant to fizz with humor and sex appeal, but ultimately does neither. Set to familiar music from the movie Moulin Rouge, even the dance feels formulaic and uninspired. Heated arguments about trivial things often prompt the question: What is this really about? In this case, wiping off the face cream doesn't reveal any scintillating answers.

The one-act is one challenging art form, but it's got one thing going for it—each play offers a new beginning, and a chance to see something that will change, enlighten, entertain, and/or frighten you. As they say, sometimes there really is something for everyone, if you keep lookfeature Little Duck (written by Billy Aronson and directed by Jamie Richards); Carol & Jill (written by Leslie Ayvazian and directed by Daniella Topol); Blood from a Stoner (written by Jeanne Dorsey and directed by Maria Mileaf); Daughter (written by Cassandra Medley and directed by Petronia Paley); and Sundance (written by M. Z. Ribalow and directed by Matthew Penn).

The Ensemble Studio Theatre's Marathon 2009: Series A

Playwrights: Kia Corthron, Christine Farrell, Garrett M. Brown, Tommy Smith, and Maggie Bofill
Directors: Will Pomerantz, Deborah Hedwall, Linsay Firman, William Carden, and Pamela Berlin

Cast: Shirine Babb, Miles Northrup Bergner, Geneva Carr, Chris Ceraso, Jackie Chung, Michael Cullen, Lucy DeVito, Christine Farrell, Julie Fitzpatrick, Brooke Fulton Myers, Stephanie Janssen, Haskell King, Bruce MacVittie, Jay Patterson, Paula Pizzi, Tatiana Suarez-Pico, Ann Talman, and Nikkie E. Walker
Set Design: Maiko Chii
Costume Design: Danielle Schembre
Lighting Design: Burke Brown
Sound Design: Shane Rettig
Prop Design: Joe Heitman
Choreographer: Sid Grant
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes, with one intermission
The Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 West 52nd Street (866) 811-4111
Tickets ($18.00)
Performances: Wednesdays-Saturdays at 7pm; Saturdays at 2pm; Sundays at 3pm
From 5/22/09; opening 5/22/09; closes 6/19/09 Review by Amy Krivohlavek based on performance 5/24/09
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