nytheatre.com review by Various Reviewers
May 24, 2009
SERIES A (reviewed by Robert Attenweiler)
It seems that these days, with the proliferation of the 10-minute play, the good old (slightly longer) one-act play has been lost in the shuffle. So it is refreshing to watch Ensemble Studio Theatre's Marathon and see short plays given a little extra time to develop their characters, ideas, and stories. The collection of five plays in Series A range from the political to the sentimental and create a generally satisfying night of new work.
Trickle, written by Kia Corthron, shows the consequences of our current financial crisis as it trickles down, inevitably impacting more greatly the people not covered by the government's bailout. Corthron crams an incredible amount of contextual information into this 15-minute play, so much so that the play's exposition threatens to outweigh the story of the characters that we're watching. But Corthron is a very skilled writer and the play keeps up a strong momentum, thanks to the precise directing of Will Pomerantz. Nikki E. Walker as Angelique gives a glowing performance, showing that it's not just the upper class who get to be learned and savvy about their career choices.
Next up, For The Love of God, St. Teresa, is set in the women's locker room of a Catholic School in 1963. Sister Mary Teresa (Christine Farrell) throws young Colleen (the lively Lucy DeVito) to the sink, demanding that she wash the tease out of her hair and the makeup off her face. Sr. Mary Teresa saw Colleen sneaking to the parking lot at the school carnival with presumed no-good Dino DeNunzio. At first, this play falls too much into the predictability of its premise. Lectures about prayer and the story of St. Teresa (who Colleen took for her confirmation name) are expected, but Farrell, who also wrote the play, turns this inquisition on morality and self-respect back onto Sr. Mary Teresa, with Colleen providing her own wisdom to help this teacher who refuses to give up on her. It's here that the play finds some very touching, effective moments.
Garrett M. Brown's Americana is a tender, compassionate play about 10-year old Gary (Miles Bergner) and his father (the commanding Michael Cullen). It is 1958 and Gary has recently been sending away for things by mail. When he sent away for information about the Encyclopedia Americana, he was not expecting them to send a salesman, Mr. Self (the wonderfully deadpan Chris Ceraso). In a series of monologues to the audience, each character remembers the evening that they, in the end, struggle to remember as a sweet moment between father and son. They struggle because each character in the play, except for Dad, knows what's going to happen in the future—Dad's breakdown, drinking, and eventual death—and Gary and his mother (Ann Talman) have to decide if this is the time to work through these issues with Dad or to let this moment be the happy, uncomplicated night they all remember. There are certainly places where the sentimentality gets overly pronounced, but, more often, director Linsay Firman keeps Americana a sweet play about how our memory is always colored by what comes after.
PTSD, by Tommy Smith, begins with Riles (Haskell King) coming home from the war (he's referred to as a "desert warrior" by his sister, so it seems he's been either in Iraq or Afghanistan). While he's been gone, his mother has died (her ashes now sit in a "gold thing" on their table), his sister, Mer (a convincing Stephanie Janssen) has had a breakdown, and his father (the endearingly ruffled Jay Patterson) only has enough money to have the heat on in one room of the house. This is a lot for Riles to deal with, and it's a lot for the audience as well. While small moments of humor break through, this play is emotionally overwrought, making it difficult for the audience to feel very much for these characters, since they are so wrapped in predictable dramatic hardship. There is a very fine moment in this play though when, at the end, Dad actually cooks breakfast for his family from a hot plate. It is these five minutes of near-silence that most effectively shows these characters and their relationships.
Finally, Face Cream is a charming piece, written by Maggie Bofill, that examines the war between beauty and aging. It is the wedding day of Woman (Paula Pizzi) and Man (Bruce MacVittie)'s daughter. Only Woman is in a frightening spot as she runs out of her prized and extremely expensive face cream which, she fears, she will never be able to buy again. What follows is occasionally funny (though occasionally just loud) back-and-forth between a Woman who refuses to give up her youthful good looks (and people's reaction to them) and a Man who is trying to navigate her troubled waters...and occasionally further troubles them himself. The play builds to a very fun climax where the conflict between the two characters morphs into a spirited tango, with the fate of the face cream on the line.
SERIES B (reviewed by David Gordon)
One verbose play is more than enough, but five? Four of the five one-acts that make up the Ensemble Studio Theatre's Marathon Series B are not only verbose, but boring, inconsequential and, after realizing how good the one good play included is, embarrassing.
The production kicks off with the banal, Daniella Topol-directed Carol and Jill by Leslie Ayvazian. Ayvazian stars with Janet Zarish as the title characters, women of a certain age who are unsatisfied by everything, Zarish with staying put (she's a mountain-climbing explorer), Ayvazian with her husband's penis. Both are curious about what it would be like to live with one another, as both domestic and romantic partners. Ayvazian's dry delivery makes her stronger than Zarish, who relies too heavily on her hands for emphasis.
Blood from a Stoner, the second piece, written by Jeanne Dorsey, starts off promising. Blood is a comedy about the strained relationship between Father (a very funny David Margulies) and Daughter (Patricia Randell), over an expensive BLT at a diner. It's pleasant and funny at first, listening to Father complain about money and call others cheapskates, but shortly turns serious after he falls after bumping into a Waiter (Thomas Lyons). Director Maria Mileaf doesn't seem to know how to handle the sudden shift in tone.
The first-act closer is Little Duck. Billy Aronson's play, a satiric jab at what it takes to get a children's television show about ducks produced, starts out very promising, but devolves into (literally) a bizarre, unfunny orgy. The cast, Paul Bartholomew, Jane Pfitsch, Julie Leedes, Steven Boyer, and Geneva Carr, pulls it off with ease, and it's smoothly directed by Jamie Richards, but the ultimate question raised is "why'd it have to end this way?"
After the intermission, we're given Daughter, by Cassandra Medley and Sundance by M.Z. Ribalow. Daughter is not only the best play of the five, but it's also the most accomplished. Medley writes about an African American mother dealing with the suicide of her daughter after she returns home from Iraq having her face blown off. Daughter is a deep, uncompromising play about faith, with a fully committed director (Petronia Paley) and a cast that includes Gayle Samuels, Kaliswa Brewster, Lynne Matthew and Natalie Carter.
Sundance, directed by Matthew Penn, is a very fitting closer, despite not being, well, interesting or funny. Why? Because it involves a Cowboy gunslinger named Sundance (Rob Sedgwick, hilarious) who one-by-one kills everyone in a bar (Richmond Hoxie, David Deblinger, Ean Sheehy, J.J. Kandel) after they talk too much. This play is particularly verbose; before each character dies, they recite a lengthy incomprehensible monologue as to why they shouldn't be shot.
But even Daughter, goes on for five minutes too many. Where was the dramaturg to provide support for these plays, to ask for the toe-sucking to be cut from Little Duck, to kill some of the direct address in Carol and Jill? Less is certainly more, and while less wouldn't have been able to entirely salvage the nearly three-hour production, it may have been infinitely better.