12 August 2015

Summer Shorts 2015, Series A

In July I was able to return to New York City for an extended period and I tried to catch up with some of what I’d been missing while I was commuting south and staying with my mother in Maryland for often long stretches.  My frequent theater companion, Diana, called me one evening and proposed catching several performances around town over the next week or so and, since I’d had to say no to her so many times in the preceding couple of years, I decided I’d take a flyer on some unpredictable experiences and (over)indulge myself.  The decision ended up taking Diana and me to four productions in six days.  I can’t say it all turned out for the best—but, of course, I couldn’t know that going in, could I?  You pays yer money and you takes yer chances.

Our first selection was part of the Summer Shorts series for 2015 at the 59E59 Theaters.  59E59 (which is located right where the name suggests, at 59 E. 59th Street) promotes the series, whose full title is Summer Shorts: Festival of New American Short Plays, as a “summer of new American one-acts featuring original plays by the country’s top playwrights.”  Now in its ninth year, the program “celebrates theater, summer and the short form,” say the producers, Throughline Artists (J. J. Kandel, producing director), offering a variety of voices, styles, and subjects.  The Festival is divided into two series, A and B, each intermissionless, hour-and-a-half part consisting of three one-act plays; Series A runs from 17 July to 28 August and Series B from 25 July to 29 August. 

The 59E59 Theaters were founded by the Elysabeth Kleinhans Theatrical Foundation, a not-for-profit operating foundation led by 59E59 president and artistic director Kleinhans, which was established to create a state-of-the-art Off-Broadway theater complex for new and experimental work by non-profit producing companies from across the U.S. and around the world.  In 2002, the building at 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues in Manhattan, was donated to the Foundation.  Architect Leo Modrcin essentially gutted the building and designed three performance spaces to provide support for theater troupes.  The largest space, the 196-seat Theater A on the second floor (the first floor houses the box office; there is also a bar on the second floor), opened in February 2004 with the first performance of Terrence McNally’s The Stendhal Syndrome produced by then resident company, Primary Stages.  (I saw this Stendhal, long before ROT started, as well as several other of Primary Stages’ productions at 59E59.)  In April 2004, the two other houses, Theaters B and C (98 seats and a 50-70-seat black box, respectively) on the third floor, opened with productions for the first Brits Off Broadway Festival (of which annual series I’ve seen only one presentation: 2007’s Memory, a Welsh production from Clwyd Theatr Cymru by playwright Jonathan Lichtenstein).  59E59 hosts many series (another of which I’ll be reporting on next), as you can see, some annual events and others one-offs, but the multiplex’s main program is the 5A Season, a series of five new American and international plays (which are presented in Theater A, hence the name).  Shows and programs at 59E59, which won a Drama Desk Award for Excellence in Theatre in 2008, generally run for three to six weeks. 
Diana and I went over to 59E59 on Sunday, 19 July, to catch the 7:15 p.m. performance of Series A in Theater B.  (Sounds like something from a Danny Kaye movie or the set-up of a Marx Brothers joke.)  The playlets (all about half an hour) are well-enough written for the most part, and they are well-acted (by different casts for each show) and -directed, but none go anywhere or say much of anything.  They all have a sort of gimmick that I gather is supposed the be the dramaturgical element that sustains them, but doesn’t.  (The plays, though, were competently written enough as far as dialogue is concerned, even if the content didn’t amount to anything in the end, that I wouldn’t be surprised if the first and second pieces, both two-handers, didn’t show up in many acting classes soon if the texts become available.  They’re the kind of material actors like to work with.)

10K, written and directed by Neil LaBute, recounts the meeting of a Man (J. J. Kandel) and a Woman (Clea Alsip) on a wooded path while getting ready to jog.  We don’t know if it’s an accident or if it was planned or if it’s the first encounter or the latest in a long string.  10K’s characterized in the publicity material as “a suburban mystery shot through with humor and tension and desire.”  Well, only a little.  10K, which isn’t as raw or outrageous as LaBute’s higher-voltage works (Fat Pig, 2004; reasons to be pretty, 2009), is set in a park somewhere.  (On one page of 59E59’s website, the series is subtitled “Stories from the Five Boroughs” and, indeed, the other playlets are set in Grand Central Station and a coffee shop somewhere near Ground Zero.  But we never actually learn where 10K takes place, except that it’s in a wooded area of a park like, perhaps, Central Park or Prospect Park.  It needn’t even be in New York City.)  The Woman and the Man, each unhappily married to someone else (whom we never meet), end up running together.  We learn a lot about each of them (not all of it complimentary: in Time Out New York, the reviewer mentions “one Bad Mommy confession that will make you want to call child protective services.”   Why these folks would reveal such intimacies to a stranger, I wondered) and it looks like a romance (or at least a hook-up) might be about to start—but it doesn’t.  The gag is that almost the whole play takes place while the two characters are jogging (a few breaks to change things up a little).  The actors face the audience and “run” in place as they talk.  (It must be a hard play to perform since for the whole half hour or so, the actors are essentially jogging, even if they don’t go anywhere.  Like the play.  The New York TimesAlexis Soloski quipped: “Let’s hope someone hands them rehydration salts as soon as they come offstage.”) 

Playlet #2, Glenburn 12 WP (the name of a top-shelf whiskey), is by Vickie Ramirez and directed by Kel Haney.  It’s the encounter between a young man (W. Tre Davis) and a young woman (Tanis Parenteau) who walk into an Irish bar at Grand Central Station.  They’ve each ostensibly come in for a quick drink on the way home but the saloon’s apparently deserted, the bartender strangely absent.  The two strangers have the run of the place and what ensues is a conversation between them in the empty bar, and as the liquor starts to flow, so do some inconvenient truths.  Troy, the young man (who didn’t really look legal to me!), is black (there’s a “die-in” protest against police violence going on in the station, but that’s little more than a backdrop that gets overused without being dramatically significance).  The gimmick here is that Roberta is Native American (“Indian,” she insists).  Ramirez makes some significance of this—she is a Tuscarora Indian herself—but in the end it doesn’t actually bear on the play’s main action—just much of the conversation that pretty much merely delays the climax.  (To paraphrase former late-night TV host Craig Ferguson from a sketch series he used to do: There’s been a murder.)  The whole thing is very contrived and set-up.

The closer is Matthew Lopez’s The Sentinels, directed by Stephen Brackett.  (Lopez’s best-known work is probably The Whipping Man, presented in 2011 by the Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center.)  Once a year in September, Alice (Meg Gibson), Christa (Kellie Overbey), and Kelly (Michelle Beck) gather at a small downtown coffee shop for breakfast (where their regular waitress is played by Zuzanna Szadkowski).  There the three woman catch up on each other’s lives and remember another September morning many years ago, 11 September 2001.  The women are all widows of 9/11; their husbands (whom we never meet) worked in a company whose office was in the World Trade Center.  The most obvious trick is in this third play: the story is told backwards, from 2011 to 2000, starting with the day after the third man was hired and the executives and their wives have dinner at Windows on the World.  Nothing, however, is revealed and the connection to 9/11 might as well be to a fire or an earthquake.  Sentinels is little more than a character study of the three widows.

The technical production is all handled by one 59E59 team, and it’s kept to a bare minimum.  10K’s set was the background of some other play, for instance, with the suggestion of forestry provided by the actors—like a poor man’s Wooden O holding the vasty fields of France.  (The remains of the constructed set, a wood-paneled interior, are simply there but ignored.)  For Sentinels, the luncheonette table and chairs are merely set on stage amidst the wood paneling; a bar is moved on stage for Glenburn, for which the constructed set may even have been built (or it may just have been usurped).  The settings were designed by Rebecca Lord-Surratt, the costumes by Dede Ayite, the lighting by Greg MacPherson, and the sound by Nick Moore; it’s all in the practical/utilitarian vein and perfectly functional. 

For me, these three short plays aren’t interesting enough to warrant going back for Series B, but the press didn’t altogether agree with me.  Of 10K, the Times’ Soloski wrote, “You can feel the playwright’s manipulations, but the play is vigorously performed”; however, she noted that Glenburn, in which she found “some stiffness to the writing,” “starts slowly, develops admirably and ends implausibly.”  Soloski acknowledged that we probably “don’t need another 9/11 play,” but asserted that Sentinels is “elegantly constructed and under Stephen Brackett’s direction, gracefully performed.”  The New Yorker, saying that the series “airs private woes in public places,” pronounced: “Competently crafted and well acted, but trivial despite weighty subject matter, these plays, like that Scotch [in Glenburn], go down smooth, with almost no aftertaste.”  The unnamed reviewer dismissed 10K as “a pair of pent-up joggers [who] almost let their imaginations (and hormones) run away with them,” felt that Glenburn “has a premise like a joke in poor taste: a Native American lawyer and an African-American physicist walk into a bar . . . .  But there’s not so much a punch line as a literal skeleton in the closet,” and called Sentinels “maudlin.” 

At TONY, Raven Snook said that the overall program, is a “grab bag of the good, the not bad and the ugly.”  10K “is a physical tour de force,” the TONY reviewer decided, but it’s “the biggest miss” of the evening, with “characters [who] are nondescript ditherers you should run from.”  Sentinels’ “gimmicky reverse chronology doesn’t add to its insights,” she  asserted, even with a cast “all beautifully fleshing out skeletal roles.”  “The meat,” wrote Snook, “comes in the middle” with Ramirez’s Glenburn, which the TONY reviewer called “ smart and moving” because the “palpable chemistry” between Davis and Parenteau “leaves you wanting more time with these folks but is perfect as it is.”  She characterized the playlet as “a politically charged conversation with wit, intelligence and a perceptiveness about what it’s like to be a person of color in this country today.”  On Talkin’ Broadway, Howard Miller called 10K “an interesting study of two people who are playing with fire,” Glenburn “smart and engaging,” and Sentinel “sweet.”  Overall, Miller thought, “Solid performances make each of the plays well worth the visit, although a collective common theme would have been a good idea for linking them.”

CurtainUp reviewer Jacob Horn, as if in answer to TB’s Miller, posited,

It’s never been the style of Summer Shorts to arrange its series around an organizing theme, but in this year’s Series A, it’s almost as if the plays are tempting you to test different ways of locking them together.  While there’s still no central theme, the three one-acts have an uncanny way of echoing one another in ways that are reliably striking, if not necessarily of deep dramatic significance.

The first two plays are, in fact, thematically similar: they offer examples of men and woman meeting under unusual circumstances and somehow attempting to use one another.  The second and third plays, meanwhile, are grounded in recent history and explore how individuals relate to the larger movements that arise in the aftermath of tragedy.  The first and third plays both include similar conversations about the ‘ideal’ gender to have as a child; the second and third both happen to feature women who really like their whiskey. 

I think Horn’s reaching: I suspect you could contrive some apparent connection between any two plays.  (I found the gimmicks, after all—though I don’t see that as a connection, just a pattern.)  The CU review-writer went on to say that “these unconnected plays do overlap and adjoin.  Seeing how one treats a topic can color how you view another’s approach, which winds up being more satisfying than a lineup of shows that are truly disconnected from one another.”  He dubbed 10K “a suburban psychological thriller of sorts . . . where every line is loaded with hidden meaning.”  The actors, Alsip and Kandel, “are carefully attentive to subtlety and nuance,” Horn asserted.  Even if 10K “occasionally layers on the air of mystery a bit too thick,” the CU reviewer allowed, “there’s also something disarmingly real about the man and woman’s conversation.”  As for Glenburn, Horn felt that while “Davis and Parenteau have good stage chemistry” and the play’s “sharp commentary on race relations and elucidations of minority perspectives in contemporary America are jarring in a welcome, insightful way,” its “eventual rapid escalation feels somewhat incongruous.”  Sentinels, Horn wrote, displays an “artfully deployed timeline,” and the cast gives “sensitive portrayals.”  Of the three playlets, “though the short scenes of the short play don’t leave room for much nuance,” Horn felt that Lopez’s is “the most emotionally affecting.” 

[I returned to 59E59 a couple of days later to see Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies, part of the theater’s East to Edinburgh series.  Come back to ROT in a few days to read what I gleaned from that performance.  ~Rick]

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