Size matters. Or is it length? While that question is still up for debate in some areas of life, New York’s various one-act festivals have long proven that less can often be more – or at least enough. Take the six short plays that make up the two parts of the 13th edition of Summer Shorts at 59E59 Theaters. They aren’t all masterpieces, but each offers enough satisfaction to be worth your time.
Series A could easily be renamed “The Death Plays,” although this trio is far from a complete downer. The brief opener, British playwright’s Nick Payne’s “Interior” – adapted from a work by the 19th-century author Maurice Maeterlinck – could well be paired with his “A Life” (now on Broadway alongside Simon Stephens’ equally moody “Sea Wall.”) A rather elegant miniature about an elderly man (beautifully embodied by Broadway veteran Bill Buell) struggling to tell a neighboring family about the death of their daughter, it’s also the most physically beautiful show of the lot, thanks primarily to Sharon Holiner’s projected pairings.
Perhaps the funniest, if least convincing, piece ever written about suicide, Danielle Trczinki’s “The Bridge Play” begins with a meet-cute as despondent would-be-jumper John (a fine John Rees) is interrupted in his mission by a callow college student (a well-cast Christopher Dylan White). At first, I suspected the piece would turn into a gay intergenerational love story, but after some very timely jokes about the selfishness of young people that change the direction of the story, the play does indeed swerve, rather unfortunately, into another sort of sentimental territory.
The series concludes with Courtney Baron’s remarkable “Here I Lie,” a pair of barely connected monologues between Joseph, a nurse (an appealing Robbie Tann) with some mysterious illnesses and an almost unhealthy devotion to a dying infant, and Maris, a young woman working in publishing (the adorable Libe Barerin) whose determination to get a memoir about cancer published causes her to cross an almost unfathomable line. The piece drags a bit here and there, but Baron has a remarkably sharp gift for how people speak and the rare ability to keep us guessing until the end.
Part B’s triptych is focused on relationships, with similarly variable results. Sharr White’s “Lucky,” about a woman confronting her distraught husband – who has finally returned home some years after World War II – is beautifully acted by Blake DeLong and Christine Spang, but the audience is likely to have figured out the husband’s problem at least 10 minutes before he melodramatically blurts it out.
Anyone who is married, or has even a passing acquaintance with matrimony, will laugh, smile or simply nod in agreement at Nancy Bleemer’s “Providence,” which exposes the small but repairable cracks in the mostly happy union of Renee (an excellent Blair Lewin) and Michael (the hunky Jake Robinson) as they struggle with sleep – and the unwelcome questions of future brother-in-law Pauly (a very funny Nathan Lawrence) – on the night before Michael’s sister’s wedding.
Saving the best – and most controversial – for last, the provocative Neil LaBute once again stirs the pot with “Appomatox.” Here, a seemingly benign conversation about how a group of Georgetown students offered to pay reparations to the descendants of enslaved people (which actually happened earlier this year) escalates intensely over a half hour. The ensuing discussion not only thoroughly tears apart the friendship of Brooks Brothers-wearing white guy Joe (a very believable Jack Mikesell) and the initially laid back African American Frank (a superb Ro Boddie) – with LaBute painfully reminding us just how superficial most male friendships really are – but the work also focuses its razor-sharp lens on the true gap that will forever separate these two races in America. As the news reminds us daily, we are still fighting a never-ending war, one that may be sometimes silent or even civil, but where violence and hatred constantly lurk just beneath the surface.