SUMMER SHORTS, SERIES B

jj_kandel-victor_slezak-the_mulberry_bush-play

Now in its eighth year, Throughline Productions’ annual event has established itself as an important showcase for new works by an impressive roster of writers. Series B, though uneven, serves as a welcome reminder of the power and versatility of the one act form.

Daniel Reitz’s NAPOLEON IN EXILE takes a compassionate look at Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Divorced publishing exec Evelyn (Henny Russell) comes home to find that her 25-year old son Corey (Will Dagger) has spent the whole day playing Minecraft. He has not, as promised, been looking for a job. Nor has he helped with any of the household chores. His recalcitrance is more than just an irritation for Evelyn. She has always wondered what will happen to Corey when she’s gone, and that day may not be far off. Evelyn has just been diagnosed with cancer. Corey’s brilliant but unusual mind manufactures a few fantasy solutions, but eventually reality sets in. Humor, toughness and affection emerge as Mother and son struggle to find a common language. Under Paul Schnee’s seamless direction, the Russell and Dagger forge a convincing, multilayered rapport and the turns of the story feel both inevitable and surprising. Reitz’s lean script, though highly endearing, steers clear of homily and sentiment and allows its characters’ quiet bravery to speak for itself.

Neil LaBute, a frequent contributor to SUMMER SHORTS, ventures into morally ambiguous territory in the tightly-constructed THE MULBERRY BUSH. Sitting alone on a park bench, Bill (Victor Slezak) wants only to eat his lunch in private, but Kip (J. J. Kandel) has other ideas. At first their conversation feels like small talk, but Kip’s questions clearly indicate that he has ulterior motives. Bill, it turns out, has passed a few pleasant hours in the park chatting with Kip’s wife and four-year-old son. Nothing inappropriate has happened, but Kip is troubled by Bill’s criminal past (which, under current law, must be made public). As Kip’s behavior grows increasingly menacing, Bill realizes the stain of his past will never be washed away. LaBute doesn’t take sides here, but his empathic portrayal of two troubled men raises provocative questions. Can sex offenders rehabilitate themselves and live law-abiding lives? Or do they remain a danger to society even after they’ve done their time? And does a father’s right to protect his family extend to robbing others of their civil liberties? Thanks to hauntingly human performances by Slezak and Kandel, THE MULBERRY BUSH continues to reverberate long after the lights go down.

Compared to the polished work of Reitz and LaBute, Albert Innarauto’s unfocused DOUBTLESS seems out of place. The story concerns a Reverend Mother (Brenda Currin) who wants to leave the Catholic Church and marry a young nun (Tasha Guevara). They plot their escape while the church’s priests and brothers are engrossed in a gay orgy. While waiting for the perfect moment to flee, they do a lot of standing around and ranting. Mother, especially, seems bent on attacking – without much wit or originality – everything from pop culture to the pagan origins of Catholic ritual. Some dramatic conflict arrives in the form of A Man (Dana Watkins), who combines elements of Jesus and Count Dracula. In order to be allowed to remarry, Mother must attain a divorce from Man (or, better yet, destroy him). The play’s energy heats up a bit as Mother and Man engage in a battle of wills, but the dialogue continues to emphasize commentary over comedy. Despite some strong performances – and a few inventive visual touches added by director Jack Hofssis – the play’s jumble of ideas fails to gel into a coherent statement.

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