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A CurtainUp Review
Summer Shorts 3, Series A
By Les Gutman
I've always liked short plays. It's not that I suffer from ADD or anything; I like really long plays too. But short plays are, to me, like bare knuckle boxing: the playwright has nothing to hide behind. You can't dress up a half-baked idea in fluff, and mistakes you make in the first act can't be redeemed in the second — you've already been swept off the mat, and another contender is in the ring.
In Series A, Summer Shorts, now a three year old institution at 59E59 that focuses on plays that are not only short but also both new and American, presents the first of two assemblages of plays that comprise this summer's offering. As always, there is no "theme" involved, and the grouping includes everything from a knock-out punch to a haymaker that misses the chin entirely.
I enjoyed the curtain-raiser, Nancy Giles's "Things My Afro Taught Me," though I am not sure I'd call it a play. Though dressed up in bits of theatricality, it would have a more comfortable fit as a stand-up act at a comedy club. That said, Ms. Giles is terrifically engaging, and just as incisive as she is funny. She nimbly moves from cataloguing what's wrong with every hair care product she's ever used, to the travails of a stint doing voice-overs on the Lifetime television channel and lots of other entertaining and thoughtful stops along the way.
John Augustine's "Death by Chocolate" bites off more than it can chew, managing to go everywhere without getting anywhere. It centers on the recently widowed Sheila (Sherry Anderson), and the war she seems to be waging with just about everyone and everything that gets in her path. That she is mad at the world that her life seems to have crumbled is not surprising; that it plays out in a cavalcade of hackneyed and stereotyped ways is. Ms. Anderson doesn't bring much freshness to any of this, and her strain in finding a believable character is palpable. Mary Joy does a little better as Sheila's one-note sister-in-law, though not much. Aaron Paternoster spends most of the show changing costumes behind a series of six doors that have busily been included on the stage by set and lighting designer Maruti Evans. He portrays a wide range of male characters that interact with Sheila over the course of this piece, and acquits himself surprisingly well. In the end, however, the script kills anyone's chances of accomplishing much, and Robert Saxner's direction doesn't find a way out of the morass.
The best known playwright included in this quartet of plays is Neil Labute, and his "A Second of Pleasure" is just about everything you could hope for in a short play. Set at Grand Central, a man (Victor Slezak) and woman (Margaret Colin) are waiting for a weekend getaway train when she abruptly announces she doesn't want to go. Labute lets us eavesdrop for a few minutes, until he drops a new fact (which I won't disclose) into the conversation, thereby shifting gears entirely. What follows is a remarkably focused examination of the meaning of love, played out at its margins, and delivered with quiet brutality. Labute understands the needs of the short play genre, and fills those needs assiduously. The acting and direction could not be better.
The final play is a two-handed musical, "The Eternal Anniversary," with music and lyrics by Skip Kennon. This sub-sub-genre has become an institution within the institution of Summer Shorts: Mr. Kennon has musicalized a two-hander for each season of the festival. This one is set a century ago, with costumes and music in keeping with the period. Tom (Robert W. DuSold), a chef, is preparing a 20th anniversary dinner for Sara (Leenya Rideout). Romance and love fill the air until, inexplicably, a long denied infidelity changes the tone. But not for long: a long misplaced exculpatory letter is inexplicably discovered, and we are back along the rosy path to the conclusion (though there is one other detail that comes into play). Kennon's songs and underscoring (all performed live by him on piano) are fine, if perhaps too period and craftmanlike for some tastes. The book, by Bill Connington, however, is about as creaky as it could be. Stated simply, there's not much here to go on, and what there is doesn't make a lot of sense. Both singers are excellent, though the century-old acting style director Thomas Caruso envisioned for them deprives them of much believability.
The second series of Summer Shorts 3 commences on August 2, and the list of included plays can be found below.