SUMMER SHORTS: SERIES A

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Written by  Cusi Cram, Neil LaBute and A. Rey Pamatmat

Directed by Jessi D. Hill, Maria Mileaf and  Ed Sylvanus Iskandar

Set designer: Rebecca Lord-Surrat, lighting designer: Greg MacPherson, sound designer/composer: Nick Moore, costume designer: Amy Sutton, props designer: Isabella Carter, projection designer: Daniel Mueller.

One of the highlights of New York theater’s summer season, Throughline Artists’ omnibus of short works is always worth the price of admission. Trimmer and faster-paced than in previous years, the 2016 edition is nonetheless long on content, creativity and professionalism.

THE HELPERS offers a bittersweet take on the complicated relationship between patient and therapist. Retired shrink Jane (Maggie Burke) is used to helping her clients get a grip on themselves. But now is appears that she’s the one whose neuroses growing worse. By chance, her ex-patient Nate (David Deblinger), sees Jane talking to herself in a gourmet food shop and decides to reach out to her. Wary at first, Jane slowly lowers her professional veneer as Nate convinces her of his sincerity. In this odd context, roles are reversed, and Nate listens patiently while Jane unpacks her emotional baggage. Therapists, after all, are people too, and are usually in the unenviable position of being forbidden to express the hurt their patients have caused them. Breaking out of the constricting parameters of session protocol paradoxically proves to be healthiest thing they’ve ever done. Under the direction of by Jessi D. Hill, Burke and Deblinger steer clear of caricature and draw their laughs from the genuine, awkwardly human process of finding common ground. Playwright Cusi Cram keeps the tone lighthearted while touching gently on the painful realities of love, loss and aging.

Employing the device of parallel monologues Neil LaBute’s AFTER THE WEDDING examines the dark truths lurking beneath the surface of a seemingly happy marriage. In a setup reminiscent of the split- screen therapy scene in Annie Hall, a young wife (Elizabeth Masucci) and her husband (Frank Harts) each speak to an unseen listener. They are remarkably consistent on the facts, but, of course each gives the story a slightly different spin. LaBute wrings plenty of the usual humor out of gender-based differences in perspective. As more information surfaces, though, it becomes apparent that this is no ordinary relationship comedy. As it turns out, as the couple was driving away from their wedding, they were involved in a tragic auto accident in which several teenagers lost their lives. Both spouses claim that it couldn’t be helped, that they were not responsible, but their no-fault accounts of the event lose their credibility over time. The more fervent the rationalizations, the more artificial – even eerily dissociative – their positivity seems. Masucci and Harts seamlessly blend charm with chills, while director Maria Mileaf exhibits a finely-tuned sensitivity to the internal rhythms of LaBute’s distinctive language.

The most theatrically ambitious of the bunch, A. Rey Pamatmat’s THIS IS HOW IT ENDS reimagines the Book of Revelation as a hipster farce. Jake (Chinaza Uche), adores his roommate Annie (Kerry Warren), but has no clue as to her secret identity. As the two play a casual game of truth or dare, Annie finally reveals her full name: Annie Christ. And as soon as she finishes her smoothie, ending the world is at the top of her to do list. As Jake goes in search of a suitably orgiastic global farewell party Annie readies her four horsemen for their final ride. Of course, the staff of the Apocalypse is hip to the fact that the End of Days means impending unemployment, and they’re not happy about it. Like reality show housemates, War (Patrick Cummings), Famine (Rosa Gilmore), and Pestilence (Sathya Sridharan) are perpetually bickering, bonding, and having affairs. It will take topnotch motivational skills to pull this crew together, put project manager Death (Nadine Malouf), seems to have the situation under control. As the psychedelic Armageddon commences, Jake discovers –just in time- unexpected truths about what really matters in life. The play could stand some tightening, yet even when it meanders Pamatmat’s script is sufficiently full of endearing characters and refreshing twists to keep the audience hooked. Director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar neatly orchestrates his cast’s considerable comedic skills and, aided by an imaginative design team, brings a splash of kaleidoscopic color to the saturnalia.

SUMMER SHORTS continues through September 3, 2016 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, between Park and Madison.

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THE CRUSADE OF CONNOR STEPHENS

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Dewey Moss’s provocative family drama centers on the aftermath of a senseless shooting. Yet the central debate of the play here isn’t about gun control. THE CRUSADE OF CONNOR STEPHENS eschews easy answers and ripped-from-the-headlines relevance in favor of a more challenging exploration of clashing ideologies.

Traumatized by the death of his young daughter, Jim Junior (Ben Curtis), numbs his pain with whisky. His husband Kris (James Padric), injured in the attack, was the intended target, and the murderer, Connor Stephens, is also dead.  Kris’s relatives Kimmy (Julie Campbell) and Bobby (Jacques Mitchell) do their best to offer solace in this difficult time. Junior’s family is a different ballgame. His father Big Jim (James Kiberd), is a famous local televangelist: one whose sermons often condemn “sins” such as homosexuality. To complicate matters, Big Jim’s congregation includes the murderer and his family. Tragically, Marianne (Katherine Leask), feels that because of his sexuality, her beloved son is “lost” to her. Also caught in the vortex is Jim Junior’s childhood friend Dean (George Faya), who now serves as Big Jim’s right hand man at the church. Tensions are further exacerbated by a swarm of reporters gathered outside the house. Thankfully, there’s one family member, straight-talking Grandma Viv’n (Kathleen Huber), who values truth over protocol. She reveals a painful incident in Big Jim’s past that prompted him to  seek answers in religion.

Moss treats all perspectives with equal compassion, and shows that both sides can sometimes be guilty of finger-pointing. Big Jim is accountable for preaching hatred and intolerance to an impressionable flock, but he could hardly have known that Connor’s troubled mind would take phrases like “shooting down sin” literally. Junior faults his father, and Dean as well, for attending Connor Stephens’  funeral. Yet Connor, too, left a grieving family behind, and it’s a church official’s job to minister to those in need. By the same token, Big Jim’s failure to reach out to his son, and Marianne’s cruel condemnation of Kris, stand as alarming examples of what can happen when the church becomes part of the problem rather than the solution.

A well-cast ensemble embodies these contradictions effectively, but they are somewhat inhibited by the limitations of the production. Moss exhibits good directorial instincts, but the venue itself seems to fighting him. Festivals often give directors the short shrift when it comes to rehearsal time and control of the scenic design, and there a times when the actors – particularly when the entire cast is onstage – aren’t able to move fluidly around the crowded set. These problems will likely diminish if CRUSADE gets a longer run in a theater the right size and shape. It deserves to.

THE CRUSADE OF CONNOR STEPHENS continues through July 24th at the Midtown International Theater Festival, at the Workshop Theater Main Stage, 312 W. 36th Street.