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A CurtainUp Review
EST Marathon 2010 — Series A
By Deborah Blumenthal
I had the unexpected pleasure of attending part of the Ensemble Studio Theatre's one-act festival; it was my first trip to this New York theater tradition, and the perfect way to kick off the sometimes strange, always eclectic New York theater-going season.
The five-play Series A doesn't have much of a through-line, but while thematic cohesion can be nice, it's also refreshing so see brief glimpses of vastly different situations and ideas. With an overarching theme in absentia, it's difficult to classify the evening as a whole, other than to say it was diverse, yet not universally impressive.
The evening gets off to a crackling start, with Ben Rosenthal's Safe, the strongest of the group. A botched teenage hookup ends in assault, leaving a widower stepfather to bail out his stepson. Intriguing, smartly written, and equally well-acted, Rosenthal's play packs a lot of punches into a little while, but never feels overcrowded. It may not be neat, but it's all compact — a sophisticated balance that shows promise for this playwright.
Gears shift from troubled youth to squabbling elders, in Wild Terrain by Adam Kraar, in which an older couple visits a sculpture exhibition and bumps into a woman from their past. Henry is a retired professor, and Cherie had been one of his favorite students. The three have an odd and uncomfortable encounter, and yet the point or resolution is unclear. With its prescribed sense of mystery the play circumvents too much and seems less a stand-alone whole than a scene, but the performances make it interesting and watchable.
The first act rounds out with the odd (and oddly gruesome) Matthew and the Pastor's Wife, by Robert Askins. By the bizarre sound effect with which it begins, you'd think you were in for some kind of ghost story, but it's actually nothing of the sort — just bloody. Matthew, a classified sinner, sits down for a meeting with his small-town preacher's wife, Dorothy, to discuss his road to morality. Righteousness itself goes out the window, in this eyebrow-raising piece that left me with a question mark plastered clear across my face, and my stomach with a distinct queasy feeling. This is a head-scratcher, and not in a good way. It starts out with big ideas, but tackles none of them, and doesn't even really seem to try.
After intermission, politics take center stage with two lengthier, particularly timely plays. Daniel Reitz's Turnabout addresses sexuality and political affiliation; Amy Fox's Where The Children Are, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In Turnabout two ex-lovers meet for coffee to discuss finances. Dennis has come into some wealth, and Josh is in desperate need of funds to pay the medical bills for his seriously ill current boyfriend. Dennis, smug and distant, agrees to help Josh, an actor, whose retribution is to serve as a g-string clad bartender and Dennis' new boyfriend's high-profile event. The catch is that this man, who we never meet, is a prominent member of the Republican Party, which Josh finds repugnant and hypocritical. A Starbucks meet-up overturns to a secluded area at the party, where Josh meets Cheyenne, the other hired bartender with a dark past. This young, spiritual beauty willing to do what it takes to get by. We learn, too, of Josh and Dennis' past, and political tension takes the backseat to more human questions of how we treat those who love and once loved us. It's not as effective as it could be, but well anchored and gently humorous. I'd like to see it stretched further, since it leaves a lot undeveloped, and might work better as a longer piece.
The last piece, Where the Children Are, charts the experiences of five parents whose children have gone off to war since 2001. It traces the optimism with which they set out to approach fear, hope and uncertainty through the reality of the various sorts of aftermath they face. They speak not to one another, but in rotating monologues, with the exception of a husband and wife who have been charged with the care of their granddaughters when their daughter shipped out. The play offers glimpses at the way families cope, and at we cope with fear and sadness at large. Easily the most affecting is a mother who ultimately loses her son, as we watch her unpack his belongings that have been sent home. The themes are common, but the structural approach makes it fascinating. The stories, despite their short length, hold a remarkable humanity, and the evening ends, albeit quite differently, as strongly as it began.