Summer Shorts 3
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
August 4, 2009
Now delivering its third season, Summer Shorts 3, produced by J.J. Kandel and John McCormack, promises an annual event filled with variety and talent. Of the four short plays in Series B, three showcase savvy direction, nuanced acting, and simple, targeted writing—the kind that defines good theatre.
The evening starts with Carol Real's Don't Say Another Word. Josh and Laura, a young couple who have been together for some time, talk over drinks at a restaurant. He's fiery, somewhat clueless, and suffers from "foot-in-mouth" disease. She's calm, sophisticated, and helps regulate his high blood pressure. It is on this occasion that Laura finds out what Josh really thinks of her. Unaware, he digs himself in deeper, and in his bumbling way, maneuvers his way out—but not without artful prompting and patient support from Laura. Andy Grotelueschen's Josh is confident only because his character is obtuse and oblivious to the effect of his words. Grotelueschen serves as a reliable straight man in this warm comedy. Stephanie D'Abruzzo as Laura provides satisfying nuance as she reads between his every line and coaches him along the way. D'Abruzzo's timing is right-on, and her expressions tell us all we need to know about what she is thinking and what she would really like to say. The production benefits from the fine direction of Ian Belknap.
If I Had, by Roger Hedden, has a similar dynamic running through it. Two young friends, Augie and Slim, have turned lawn mowing into a business by changing the name to Good Guys Landscape Maintenance. As the play opens, Augie and Slim take a break, enjoying a beer and some idle conversation. Augie, preoccupied with Audrey, the daughter of the owners of the massive property for which they are laboring, wants nothing more than to "stick it to" her. Not that Audrey has done anything to him. She spends her days sunning herself on the pier, reading a book, and sipping a summer drink decorated with a paper umbrella. Augie is jealous of all her privileges. Slim, pleased with the plum account and ambitious to grow their business, points out that "sticking it" to Audrey could cause them to lose their largest client as well as the goodwill that their business depends on. Andy Powers empowers Augie with all he needs to cause the necessary rift: a childish need for immediate gratification, lack of foresight, and a belief that Good Guys Landscape Maintenance is nothing more than fancy words strung together. Shane McRae's cool and level-headed Slim makes wise business choices without sacrificing his friendship. Emily Tremaine delivers a confident Audrey in a teeny bikini. Billy Hopkins directs this three-scene play with finesse.
Jose Angel Santana makes a fine New York directorial debut with a revival of William Inge's The Killing. Through the use of pauses and awkward silences, Santana furthers the psychological drama the playwright so aptly captured in his words. The play opens with Mac, a lonely bachelor, ushering Huey, a bar pick-up, into his apartment. The plot unfolds slowly, shifting power from one character to the other until the very end. Neal Huff as Mac, a sorry sort, maintains his dignity throughout. J. J. Kandel imbues Huey with spunk, confidence, and empathy. Who wins? Ah. Both characters are in the hands of the devil, and Santana maintains a beautiful balancing act until the very end.
Only The Sin Eater, by Keith Reddin, left me perplexed. The play is a contemporary and abbreviated version of Aeschylus's Greek trilogy The Oresteia with a few lines from Hamlet thrown in. This was not clear to me until well after I left the theatre. The names El, Cleo, and Orel are present-day counterparts for Electra, Clytemnestra, and Orestes. There are other parallels that are clever, but not clear—especially if you are not familiar with—or expecting—Greek tragedy.
In Reddin's play, a black teenager, El, promises revenge on her mother, Cleo, for murdering her father after he discovers Cleo's affair. El is also angry at her mother for driving away her brother, Orel, many years ago. Meanwhile, the mother has a nightmare, which forebodes the vengeance that will be exacted upon her later. A white social worker, Candice, claims to understand El's trauma and wants her to talk about it, but El is having none of it. El's friend, Ruthie, who claims to be clairvoyant, offers moral support. Subsequently, police officer Alex arrives to tell El that her brother is dead. To the contrary, Orel later returns, reuniting with his sister and fulfilling her desire for revenge.
The Sin Eater is an ambitious undertaking. The story, as presented, feels undeveloped and the characters seem like stereotypes, each popping up spontaneously as if he or she were an afterthought. Also, there is a feeling of recitation about the play. In the role of El, Clara Hopkins Daniels sounds like she is running lines instead of inhabiting her character. Both Jamie Watkins, the social worker, and J. J. Kandel, the cop and sin-eater (one who takes on the sins of the deceased through ritual so they can rest in peace), also deliver lines like a Greek chorus. Only Rosalyn Coleman, in the role of the mother, puts heart into her character, standing in stark relief against the others. Teala Dunn as Ruthie and Sheldon Woodley as Orel round out the cast. Billy Hopkins, the very same man who gives discipline to If I Had, directs. Reddin tries to combine Greek tragedy, contemporary racial stereotypes, Scottish folklore (the sin-eaters), and more. The result feels messy.
In an evening of short plays, I always expect variety and I am not surprised that I like some more than others. I was not disappointed with Summer Shorts 3 Series B. Three out of four is very good, and those three are well worth the ticket.