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A CurtainUp Review
Summer Shorts 2016, Series A
By Jacob Horn
As usual, the two series of this year's installment present several one-act plays without any particular focus on underlying thematic connections. Those keeping track may notice that the plays of Series A just so happen to offer echos of a few of last year's shorts (click for reviews of 2015's Series A and Series B), including a play focused on mental health and a Neil LaBute piece featuring a man and woman of suspect intentions. This certainly reflects the tastes of those selecting the plays, but there's also an interesting invitation here to consider the one-act as a form and how that form relates to certain types of stories.
The short play is obviously, by definition, limited. It has to work economically to sketch out a world, show you what matters within it, and then reach some point of consequence related to that essence: the resolution (positive or negative) of a conflict, the growth of a character, the revelation of a secret, and so on. My point here is not to explain what a play is, but to marvel at just how much a one-act needs to accomplish within 20 or 30 minutes, sometimes less, in order to make a viewer care about what they're watching.
It's for this reason that Summer Shorts can always be hit and miss, and why having six or so plays to experience between the two series is so valuable. Series A certainly features some vastly different offerings, starting with the very traditional The Helpers, featuring Maggie Burke and David Deblinger as Jane, a retired therapist, and Nate, one of her former patients, meeting in the park, each hoping to sort out some questions and concerns with the other.
The play, written by Cusi Cram and directed by Jenni D. Hill, is ultimately a reminder that everyone needs help sometimes (recalling last year's Unstuck, a play about depression by Lucy Thurber). While Burke's sharp and precise delivery contrasts nicely with Deblinger's clueless warmth, and despite naturalistic direction, the play attempts to move too far, too fast. It's impossible to believe that someone who seems as staunchly professional as Jane would speak so readily with Nate, blowing past the boundaries of the doctor-patient relationship, and the character's arc doesn't feel earned.
Neil LaBute takes an opposite approach in After the Wedding, moving slowly and deliberately to spool out an account of something that happened on the honeymoon for a newly-married husband and wife (Frank Harts and Elizabeth Masucci). The two performers speak in isolation, as if they've been separated into different rooms, offering perspectives that overlap and conflict.
The dialogue here is typically fast and clever, with direction (by Maria Mileaf) and acting to match. LaBute's use of these dual narrators allows for a number of humorous contradictions and striking disclosures. But as the stakes of the story rise, the couple's attitudes remain alarmingly nonchalant. The disjunction is entertaining in the same way that the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie film Mr. and Mrs. Smith made a joke out of a couple working on their marriage while trying to assassinate each other: it's a humorous enough premise, but one that inherently makes the characters seem inhuman or sociopathic. There's a perpetual risk that the characters will turn into caricatures, but LaBute takes pains to make them just relatable enough to avoid this.
Caricatures are more deliberately utilized by A. Rey Pamatmat in This is How It Ends, directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar. Annie Christmas (Kerry Warren) reveals to her roommate Jake (Chinaza Uche) that she is, in fact, the Anti-Christ and is about to bring about the end of the world with the help of her four co-workers Death (Nadine Malouf), Pestilence (Sathya Sridharan), Famine (Rosa Gilmore), and War (Patrick Cummings). The absurd play, inspired in part by the "Teen Apocalypse Trilogy" by the New Queer Cinema–associated filmmaker Gregg Araki, stands in noted contrast to the rather serious two that preceded it, embracing a campy feeling.
Pamatmat's play is largely irreverent but manages to work in some philosophical and metaphysical musings as well. The Odd Couple–esque arrangement that results in the four horsemen of the apocalypse struggling to live together without ticking each other off turns these potentially intimidating figures into delightfully understated ones. The complex and fantastical plot naturally results in some confusion and ambiguity, and Annie's goals or motivation remain cloudy throughout, but there's something intriguing about how out-there this play is, especially when paired with the other two.
Still, the cohesion between all three pieces feels rocky, and Series A totals up as an uneven collection, leaving you more weary of the one-act rather than energized by it. For those eager for more, however, there's always Series B. That second group of three shows began performances on July 30 and opens on August 7 (see details in the Production Notes.
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Summer Shorts 2016, Series A
By Cusi Cram
Directed by Jessi D. Hill
with Maggie Burke (Jane) and David Deblinger (Nate)
Assistant Director: Sarah Cronk
AFTER THE WEDDING
By Neil LaBute
Directed by Maria Mileaf
with Frank Harts (Man) and Elizabeth Masucci (Woman)
Assistant Director: Mia Schachter
THIS IS HOW IT ENDS
By A. Rey Pamatmat
Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar
with Patrick Cummings (War), Rosa Gilmore (Famine), Nadine Malouf (Death), Sathya Sridharan (Pestilence), Chinaza Uche (Jake), and Kerry Warren (Annie)
Assistant Director: Logan Reed
Set Design: Rebecca Lord-Surratt
Lighting Design: Greg MacPherson
Sound Design/Composer: Nick Moore
Costume Design: Amy Sutton
Props: Isabella Carter
Projection Design: Daniel Mueller
Assistant Producer: Krysta Hibbard
Technical Director: Dan Teachout
Production Stage Manager: Jenna R. Lazar
Presented by Throughline Artists
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street (between Park and Madison Aves.)
Tickets: $25 for a single ticket, or $40 a Pair of Shorts (includes Series A and B); www.59e59.org, 212-279-4200
From 7/22/2016; opened 7/31/2016; closing 9/3/2016
Performance times: Summer Shorts plays Tuesday–Thursday at 7:15 pm, Friday at 8:15 pm, Saturday at 2:15 and 8:15 pm, and Sunday at 3:15 and 7:15 pm; check 59e59.org for which series play at which times.
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 7/28/2016 performance
SERIES B RUNS JULY 30 THROUGH SEPTEMBER 3
THE DARK CLOTHES OF NIGHT, by Richard Alfredo, directed by Alexander Dinelaris, with Sinem Meltem Dogan, James Rees, and Dana Watkins
QUEEN, by Alexander Dinelaris inspired by The Woman Who Came at Six O'Clock by Gabriel García Márquez, directed by Victor Slezak, with Casandera M.J. Lollar, Chris McFarland, and Saverio Tuzzolo
BLACK FLAG, by Idris Goodwin, directed by Logan Vaughn, with Francesca Carpanini, Suzette Azariah Gunn, and Ruy Iskandar
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