SUMMER SHORTS 2019, SERIES B

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Written by Sharr White, Nancy Bleemer & Neil LaBute
Directed by JJ Kandel, Ivey Lowe & Duane Boutté

Set design by Rebecca Lord-Surratt
Lighting design by Greg MacPherson
Costume design by Amy Sutton
Sound design by Nick Moore
Projection design by Joshua Langman
Prop design by Jenna Snyder and Alexander Wylie

Everyone knows the official story of the “greatest generation”, the hard-working and self- sacrificing Americans who toughed out the Great Depression, bravely fought and won the Second World War, then settled into comfortable lives in the new prosperity. But a closer look reveals cracks in the façade of postwar contentment. Sharr White’s ironically titled LUCKY looks at lives that didn’t fit into the socially convenient narratives of the day. With a storm raging outside, veteran Phil Granger (Blake DeLong) holes up in a dingy motel room on the outskirts of his home town. Unexpectedly, Phil receives a visit from his wife Meredith (Christine Spang), who is interested to know why he keeps disappearing and if he ever plans to return home for good. Phil is evasive, unable to put his feelings into words. Meredith presses further, elaborating on the sorrows of Phil’s mother, the death of his disgraced father (apparently a suspected communist), of her own difficulty at transitioning from the role of a machinist during the war to a shop girl in peace time, and of how Phil’s prolonged absence has made her the butt of small town gossip. Phil has the power to change all this, but he suffers from what we now know as PTSD. Nursing his invisible wounds, he has chosen the life of a drifter rather than return to the wife of whom he now feels unworthy and the civilian life he no longer knows how to lead. There’s nothing in any of the government- issued training manuals about fixing a broken man, but with a little determination Phil and Meredith just might find a way forward. Spang and DeLong give honest and moving performances, but they’re underserved by the oddly stagnant script. Meredith spends a good deal of time unpacking information, but doesn’t vary her tactics much, which make her effort to win her husband back seem half-hearted. And by the time Phil gets around to admitting that he “cracked up” from battle fatigue, the audience has long since figured this out has wearied of waiting for the other shoe to drop. White would do well to shake things up by exploring the idioms of regional speech or examining how people in pain use humor as a coping mechanism: something to vary the tone.

In PROVIDENCE, Michael (Jake Robinson) returns home to Rhode Island for his sister Gina’s wedding. Though he’d like to get some rest before the big day, his wife Renee (Blair Lewin) requires his help. She is in need of a tampon: a tricky problem to solve when all the other family are asleep and none of the stores are open. With slumber a slender possibility, the two get to talking, and details emerge about Michael’s family. Renee feels like something of a secular-Jewish Alice in a Catholic wonderland of eccentric relatives, sauces with mysterious ingredients, and crucifixes adorned with human hair. The conversation is disrupted by a visit from groom-to-be Pauly (Nathan Wallace), who is also suffering from insomnia. Nervous about embarking on the biggest journey of his life, Pauly seeks advice from his more experienced soon-to-be relatives. What’s this marriage thing really all about anyway? How do couples communicate, sustain a healthy relationship, make love last?  Touched by Pauly’s sincerity, Michael and Renee begin by trying to help, but end by wondering if Pauly and Gina, sweethearts since fourth grade, could teach them a thing or two about coupledom. Several years into their marriage, Renee and Michael have thankfully outgrown their newlywed insecurities, but along the way they’ve inevitably lost some of the wonder – the Pauly-ness, you might say – that once made life seem so romantic. Playwright Nancy Bleemer wisely doesn’t spoon feed the audience an easy answer as to whether the passage of time will strengthen or erode the young couple’s bond, preferring instead to let us continue thinking about her vibrant characters long after the curtain goes down. Crisply timed direction and an emotionally honest cast help deliver Bleemer’s affecting blend of comedy and poignancy.

A different kind of relationship angst animates Neil LaBute’s APPOMATTOX. This time it’s a friendship that is put to the test. Buddies Frank (Ro Boddie) and Joe (Jack Mikesell) are out in a pleasant local park, planning to chat, throw a football around, and munch on some (scrupulously healthy) picnic food. But their idyll takes an uncomfortable turn when Joe brings up the recent (factual) news story in which a group of Georgetown students voted to increase their tuition in order to create a scholarship fund for descendants of the slaves that were once owned, and sold, by the University. Joe finds the young people’s action commendable, but Frank has his doubts. After all, the increase in tuition is only $27.20 per student per semester: symbolic, yes, (272 is the number of people sold by Georgetown in 1838), but is that amount really enough? If this is really about payback, shouldn’t it hurt a little? Perhaps it’s better to consign what he calls the “un-make-up-able” things to history and just move one with our lives. With increasingly absurd results, Joe keeps frantically trying to brainstorm reparations ideas that will please his black friend. Frank wishes his oafishly well-meaning white pal would just change the subject, but Joe refuses to let it go. Well then, reasons Frank, if that’s the way it is, game on. He, too, escalates, and soon both men find themselves speeding down that famous paved-with-good-intentions road to hell with little hope of turning back. The script raises important, often unanswerable questions. What exactly is the correct price for a human life, let alone a compensation package for thousands of lives destroyed of a period of 400 years? Should we, as Frank would prefer, put the past behind us, or is it better, as Joe believes, to at least do something to push the conversation in the right direction? LaBute’s point here isn’t to hold a Shavian debate on the pros and cons of slave reparations, but to show America’s dark past, bewildering present and foreboding future can toxify even the most positive of relationships. Smartly, Mikesell and Boddie portray Joe and Frank not as ideologues, but as engaging guys who genuinely like each other and strive for nothing loftier than a little casual bro time. Their rapport makes the story’s painful trajectory all the more resonant.

SUMMER SHORTS 2019, SERIES B continues through August 31 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022. Tickets: https://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/summer-shorts-2019-series-b/

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A WHITE MAN’S GUIDE TO RIKER’S ISLAND

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Written by Richard Roy & Eric C. Webb
Directed by Thomas G. Waites

Using only a bare stage and a single actor, Richard Roy’s colorful prison dramedy sports a suspenseful plot and a cast of inmates as compelling as those found in Oz and Orange is the New Black. And it clocks in at under two hours, no time-devouring binge watching required.

Derived from an incident in Roy’s real life, A WHITE MAN’S GUIDE TO RIKERS ISLAND is narrated in energetic first person by Young Rich (Connor Chase Stewart). Growing up in suburban New Jersey, the young man exhibits prodigious talent on the basketball court and the boxing ring, even sparring with Muhammad Ali and contending for the prestigious Golden Gloves. In his early twenties, he trades in his mitts for a new ambition: acting. Here, too, he is successful, scoring parts in Broadway plays and soap operas. His love life is great, too, and he plans to marry his girlfriend as soon as possible. But Rich has a destructive penchant for booze and cocaine, and on one of his wilder benders he loses control of his vehicle and plows into a motorcycle. Sobering up amid a tangle of blood and twisted metal, Rich is arrested and told that the rider of the bike did not survive the crash. His bright future derailed, Rich obtains the services of a good lawyer, but eventually finds his only hope is to cop a plea and prepare himself for a stint in one of America’s most notorious penal colonies.

Now a “fish” (prison jargon for a first-time convict) out of water, Rich finds himself surrounded by a population of mostly black and Hispanic internees from poor or working-class backgrounds. He stands out like a sore thumb, but is thankfully able to find a few allies. Streetwise Saddam shows Rich the ropes, while the charming transgender Shivon develops a crush on the new inmate and keeps a lookout for potential threats. Together with his new associates, Rich quickly masters the art of “juggling”, a form of loansharking in which cigarettes are used as currency. With more economic resources at his disposal than the average prisoner, Rich is able to buy smokes in bulk at the commissary and undercut the price set by rival jugglers. But as his reputation grows, so does his visibility as a target for retaliation. The dominant gang at Rikers is the Latino Express, and its leader, Hector, doesn’t take kindly to the white interloper cutting into his market share. Confrontations follow, and when Hector starts asking questions about Rich, it turns out their histories are intertwined in ways that neither could have predicted. Like characters in a Greek drama, Hector and Rich seem fated to cross paths. After a few close scrapes, Rich becomes more vigilant. He spends most of his time in the relative safety of the offices of the Rikers Review, presided over by the idealistic corrections officer Dillis. The tedium of prison life begins to lift as Rich puts his energy and sense of humor into writing for the paper. But it’s only a matter of time before stark changes take place both inside and outside the walls of Rikers. Reckoning, remorse, catharsis, and redemption beckon. Rich might just come out of this a better man– if he can stay sane.

Tightly constructed and disarmingly tender at times, Roy’s script, co-written with Eric C. Webb, manages to cover a copious amount of narrative ground while never bogging down in extraneous detail.  Under Thomas G. Waites’s allegro direction, Stewart rises with creativity and conviction physical and emotional demands of the role. His odyssey is given extra weight by brief appearances, at the prologue and coda to the show, of the real Richard Roy. Weathered but hopeful, Roy seems determined to live a life of purpose, to give his experience meaning by using it to help and inform others. With the controversial Rikers Island yet again in the news today (see below) his voice can only increase in relevance.

https://www.cnn.com/2019/07/31/us/layleen-polanco-rikers-island-autopsy/index.html

A WHITE MAN’S GUIDE TO RIKERS ISLAND continues through August 31, 2019 at the Producer’s Club 358 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036. Tickets: http://www.brown-papertickets.com/event/4273937