SUMMER SHORTS, SERIES B

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Written by Neil LaBute, Eric Lane and Claire Zajdel
Directed by Terry Berliner,  J.J. Kandel and James Rees

After an uneven Series A, SUMMER SHORTS is back on track with a trio of solidly crafted and adventurous entries.

At first the two siblings at the center of Claire Zajdel’s THE PLOT appear to be polar opposites. Frankie (Molly Groome) is a first-year associate in a prestigious law firm who dresses in crisply tailored business attire. Her brother Tyler (Jake Robinson), an IT freelancer, works at his own pace and favors the tech dude’s uniform of loose jeans and a flannel shirt. As the story develops, though, it turns out brother and sister have more in common than appearances would suggest. For one thing, their loving but controlling mom still exerts a potent influence on both their lives. On this particular day, Mom has asked the kids to meet her in a local cemetery to view the new headstone she’s picked out. She has also reserved spots for Tyler and Frankie in the family plot. Clearly Mom is thinks it’s appropriate not only to micromanage her offspring’s lives, but their afterlives as well. Rivalries mingle with affection as the siblings negotiate over whether to let Mom her have her way. Groome, to great comic effect, portrays Frankie as a text book approval seeker who, despite Doing Everything Perfectly, feels that parental validation is perpetually out of reach. Robinson provides her with an apt foil as the maddeningly mellow bro whose go-with-the-flow mentality, ironically, helps ingratiate him to Mom. Though THE PLOT could use a more satisfying finale, its characters are so endearing, their issues so relatable, that a stroll around the graveyard with them proves an enjoyable experience.

IBIS, by Eric Lane, weaves an intriguing tapestry out of the traditions of film noir and naturalistic family drama. Tyrone Martin (Deandre Sevon) has always wondered what happened to his father. Dad left when Tyrone was little, leaving nothing unanswered questions behind. To aid him in his quests, Tyrone engages the service of private detective Sam Spade (Lindsey Broad). Sam claims to have never heard of Humphrey Bogart, but, as in any good mystery, things are not what they seem. As Sam reveals her real name and (somewhat) true story, Tyrone becomes more comfortable sharing what few details he remembers of his father and discussing the coping mechanisms he employed to get through a confusing childhood. As it turns out, Victor Martin (Harold Surratt), is hiding in plain sight. But Tyrone still has a tough road ahead of him. After all these years, father and son seem to have little in common. Yet again, though, appearances prove deceiving. Lane’s dialogue takes a surprisingly lyrical turn in the final scene, which is played with moving honesty by Sevon and Surratt. Greg MacPherson’s moody lighting and Nick Moore’s sound design give the piece a Billy Wilderesque dark elegance.

Neil LaBute’s SPARRING PARTNER centers on an emotional affair between two coworkers. Stealing and extra few minutes before returning to the office, Woman (Joanna Christie) and Man (Keilyn Durrel Jones) linger on a park bench after a takeout lunch. Giddy with the joy of each other’s company, they engage in a movie trivia game (name a film that in which, say, Meryl Streep and Robert Deniro both appear). Woman keeps winning, which only makes Man admire her more. But when it comes to matters of the heart, Woman can’t help but feel like she’s on the losing side. Man, after all, has a wife back home, and though he admits the marriage is a failure, he doesn’t seem ready to call it quits. Soon their idyll is shadowed by questions. What do all these balmy afternoons spent playing trivia games and dancing to Paolo Conte songs really mean to him? Is he really in love with Woman or is he merely trying to recapture the spontaneity and innocence of new love: things that inevitably diminish with time even in the strongest of long term relationships. And is Woman content with stolen moments of happiness? Or is it time to set some boundaries, to insist that there be no more games unless the ante includes commitment? Exercising a light touch, LaBute doesn’t provide easy answers, preferring to let the audience speculate as to how things will turn out. The only certainty is that nothing will change without pain. Jones and Christie, natural in their movements and pure in their emotions, make the plight of their characters reverberate long after the curtain call.

SUMMER SHORTS SERIES A continues through September 1, 2018 at 59E59 Theaters at 59 East 59th Street between Madison and Park Avenues, New York, New York. https://www.ticketcentral.com.

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SUMMER SHORTS 2017: Series A

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Written by Melissa Ross, Alan Zweibel & Graham Moore
Directed by Mimi O'Donnell, Maria Mileaf & Alexander Dinelaris

Now celebrating its tenth anniversary, Thoughline Artists’ SUMMER SHORTS festival continues to offer an important showcase for actors, directors and writers of short-form theater. As usual, some scripts are more fully realized than others, but the caliber of the acting and the quality of the production remains consistent throughout the evening.

Anyone who’s ever lost a pet will empathize with the protagonists of Melissa Ross’s JACK.  Faced with the sad task of disposing of their beloved dog's remains, Maggie (Claire Karpen) and George (Aaron Roman Weiner in for Quincy Backer-Dunn) agree on a perfect spot: The Union Square dog run where Jack spent some of his happiest afternoons. It sounds simple enough, but as the two ex-spouses prepare to scatter the departed's ashes, old feelings bubble up to the surface. The ink has barely dried on their divorce, and though both are getting on with their lives, the wounds of separation haven't fully healed.  Thanks to Ross’s skillful and compassionate writing and Mimi O’Donnell’s naturalistic direction, a complex portrait of a troubled marriage begins to emerge. We get a glimpse of the chemistry that made George and Maggie a good couple at first, as well as the inertia that eventually pulled them apart. Weiner and Karpen allow themselves to be entirely vulnerable on stage, allowing the comic and poignant beats of the play to flow organically.

PLAYING GOD comically pits a mere mortal against the wrath of the Almighty. Egotistical obstetrician Scott Fisher (Dana Watkins) decides to interfere with the natural birth cycle and hasten the arrival of his Brittany’s (Flora Diaz) baby. He's not doing it out of concern for the patient, he just wants to reschedule the due date so he can dash off to Chile while the skiing is still good. God (Bill Buell) sees this as an encroachment on his territory. As he tells his assistant (Welker White), Fisher “needs a crash course in humility”. Soon, the young doctor finds himself literally playing God– on a squash court in Boca Raton. Assuming he'll trounce the old timer, Fisher is in for a rude awakening. Playwright Alan Zweibel could stand to further explore the comedic possibilities of his premises. But the script does contain its share of grand one liners and even a bit of Shavian discourse on the subject of Science vs. Faith, all of it volleyed with expert comic timing by Buell and Watkins.

Graham Moore's docudrama ACOLYTE takes place in 1954, in the New York apartment where Ayn Rand (Orlagh Cassidy) plays hostess to a couple of her eager young disciples. Recently wed, Barbara (Bronte Englandnelson) and Nathaniel Branden (Sam Lilja) are having some marital difficulties– and not just because he's an Aristotelian, while she favors the teachings Plato. Ayn, of course, capitalizes on the opportunity to preach her own philosophy of rational self-interest. Ayn's husband Frank (Ted Koch) purports to be a Regular Joe with little grasp of all this epistemological mumbo jumbo. In fact, he's more aware than anyone of what his wife is capable of. Loosened by booze and heady rhetoric, Nathaniel confesses that he's been harboring a strong attraction to Ayn, and Ayn admits she wouldn’t kick him out of bed either. Of course, if there's any swinging to be done, it must be handled in true Objectivist style, with all interested parties on the same page. How about it, Barbara? Willing to lend your husband's Johnson to The Cause?  The dramatic tension builds effectively as this rather Albee-esque dynamic threatens to hurtle the characters into uncharted emotional territory. Unfortunately, though, the energy dissipates when Ayn rises from her perch to deliver a lecture on the evils of Liberalism and other social trends. Though the charismatic Cassidy delivers the aria with compelling conviction, the monologue seems out of place. A more interesting option would be to delve deeper in to the character of Nathaniel, who would soon become a noted psychotherapist, and would one day author his own influential and widely-read book. Tellingly, he titled it The Psychology of Self-Esteem.

SUMMER SHORTS continues through September 2, 2017 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, New York. Tickets: https://www.ticketcentral.com/59e59/ Online/ default.asp