“I’m ready. Let’s do this,” I thought, sitting in my seat, at one of the smaller upstairs spaces at 59E59, preparing to take in Summer Shorts: Series A, the first of two installments of the annual festival of short new American plays. Each series consists of three half-hour pieces, with a combined running length of about 90 minutes without intermission.
But there was a slight hiccup. Rather than go straight into the first piece, the audience was instead made to sit through a well-intentioned but awkward promotional film starring playwright Neil LaBute (who frequently contributes pieces to the festival, including this year) about its Stage to Screen initiative, which aims to create film versions of the short plays following their stage debuts.
That’s all well and good, but couldn’t the festival’s organizers have put an insert about the initiative into the playbill instead? People may have the patience for this sort of promo film at the movies, where sitting through coming attractions and various other advertisements is standard procedure, but this is a rather numbing way to start off a theater production, where an audience often decides within the first few minutes whether it is interested or not – after which it is difficult, if not impossible, to win the audience back.
Once the film was over and done with, stagehands quickly came on and assembled the few set pieces for the first short play. You really have to admire the nimble handiwork of the prominently featured two stagehands at Summer Shorts, who materialize multiple times each evening between the short plays.
First up for Series A was Jack, a two-hander by Melissa Ross, whose work has been produced in New York by Manhattan Theatre Club (Of Good Stock) and Labyrinth Theater Company (Thinner than Water, Nice Girl). At the start, we see a bearded, laidback man in his late 30s (Quincy Dunn-Baker) sitting on a city park bench and a high-strung woman around the same age (Claire Karpen) standing next to him. They are in the midst of an argument. But for now, their relationship and the reason for their discord is unclear. Eventually, we learn that they are a recently divorced couple now dealing with the sudden death of their dog, Jack.
Eventually, the tension between the pair dies down, and they proceed to calmly address their marriage (during which they had no children) and their current romantic activities. (He is dating a college-age dog walker. She is dating a vegan.) Under the focused direction of Mimi O’Donnell (former artistic director of Labyrinth Theater Company and partner of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), Dunn-Baker and Karpen convey the comfort and love still shared by their characters, even if their relationship proved to be unsustainable. It’s no surprise to learn that the pair has apparently been meeting once a week, even after their divorce.
The slower second half of the play could use some work, but Jack made me interested and intrigued enough by these characters to believe that a full-length play could be built around them. I wanted to spend more time with them. A half-hour single scene was not enough. What led to the end of their marriage? Why was their dog such an important part of their lives? Will they be able to move on with their lives without each other? There is a lot to explore here.
Jack was followed by Playing God, an inconsequential god-meets-douchebag sketch by Alan Zweibel (who collaborated with Billy Crystal on the nostalgia-driven solo show 700 Sundays). Following a short scene where a pompous, jet-setting obstetrician (Dana Watkins) convinces his pregnant patient to undergo early induced labor in order to accommodate his vacation schedule, God (Bill Buell in white robes), ticked off by the doctor’s self-centered behavior, decides to pay him a visit and prove his worth by beating him at a game of racquetball. Zweibel was one of the original writers of Saturday Night Live, and Playing God resembles an embarrassingly hokey Saturday Night Live sketch (the kind of D-list material you may find at the end of an episode, when most of the viewing audience has already gone to sleep). It had no business being presented alongside interesting work by serious-minded New York playwrights. Perhaps the piece would have at least landed comically with more precise physical business than that provided under Maria Mileaf’s direction.
Series A concluded with Acolyte by Graham Moore (Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Imitation Game), in which an older couple (Orlagh Cassidy and Ted Koch) interacts with a younger couple (Bronte England-Nelson and Sam Lilja) in a relaxed cocktail hour setting, perhaps sometime in the 1950s. It is not long before the audience realizes that the thickly accented, authoritative, older lady is none other than the provocative 20th-century author Ayn Rand. Joined by her henpecked, sad and silent husband, Rand provokes the young couple into admitting their sexual dissatisfaction, and she finishes the piece with a sermon celebrating her belief in cold-hearted self-interest. This was certainly the most literary-minded and far-out of the evening’s three pieces, even if it was jumbled, didactic and pretentious (with plenty of references to Plato and Aristotle thrown in). Moore allowed meandering philosophic discussion to overtake an interesting premise.
Stay tuned for Series B!