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 SERIES A

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Written by Robert O’Hara, Abby Rosebrock and Chris Bohjalian
Directed by Robert O’Hara, Jess Chayes and Alexander Dinelaris

In terms of production values, this year’s first round of SUMMER SHORTS has achieved a new level of technical smoothness. Rebecca Lord-Surrat’s sets, Greg MacPherson’s lighting, and Amy Sutton’s costume design combine to give the show a painterly richness, while Nick Moore’s sound design is so realistic that the sound effect of a snore had people looking around the theater to see who in the audience had dozed off. Scriptwise, though, SERIES A doesn’t offer as strong a selection as in previous years. While all of the show’s three pieces sport provocative premises, none of them quite feel fully realized.

THE LIVING ROOM: A SATIRE, written and directed by Robert O’Hara, at first appears to be a nice two-hander about an ordinary couple spending a casual evening in front of the television set. But soon we learn that Frank (Joel Reuben Ganz) and Judy (Kate Buddeke) are actually aware that they are characters in a play. They seem frightened of their creator, uncertain of what he might inflict on them next, and eager to share their anxiety with the audience. Race plays a part in the proceedings: Frank and Judy keep referring to themselves as the last two Caucasoids on Earth, and flashing back to some apocalyptic era when they were held captive and forced to procreate under the watchful eye of a totalitarian (presumably non-white) regime.  The play’s Pirandellian conceit is put to its best use when commenting on the playwright’s creative process. Has he birthed Frank and Judy merely because a living room play about a white couple has a decent shot at getting produced? Or is using his characters to sort out some personal quandary? Unfortunately, O’Hara takes a discursive approach to his narrative and seems uncertain of his targets. While the play introduces a number of intriguing themes, it’s a few drafts away from delivering the pasquinade its title promises.

KENNY’S TAVERN, written by Abby Rosebrock, takes place a downscale tavern in the tense autumn days leading up to the 2016 presidential election. Laura (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) teaches at a progressive in school in North Carolina. The irony of working at a “magnet school” isn’t lost on Laura, who feels stuck, like an iron filing, to an untenable situation. She and her mentor Ryan (Stephen Guarino) have feelings for each other that are rapidly moving past platonic. But Ryan is married, and Laura fears that the only solution is for her to leave her present situation. If she abandons her post though, she will turn her back on a promising career as well as depriving her students of the help and inspiration she excells at providing. While Ryan and Laura struggle to untangle their predicament, waitress Jaelyn (Mariah Lee) laments her own disappointing existence. A working-class teen, she has tried on several occasions to increase her upward mobility by gaining acceptance to the magnet school: all to no avail. Laura is quick to remind the young woman that she cursed, complained and otherwise sabotaged herself during her interviews. Their conversation is the Great American Cultural Divide in miniature. Red-staters feel that the political elite won’t listen to them. Liberals, seeing only hate speech and boorish behavior on the right, are loath to reach across the aisle. Common ground seems to be disappearing faster than a polar ice cap. TAVERN has its share of lulls and could to with some trimming, but Rosbrock’s confident style and blending of the personal with the political make it the strongest entry of the evening.

In Chris Bohjalian’s GROUNDED, aviophobic Emily (Grace Experience) takes to the skies to in an effort to overcome her fear of moving forward with her life. Older and wiser flight attendant Karen (K.K. Glick) enjoys hazing her young protégé, but clearly has her best interests at heart. As the two prep for the flight, their converation goes from chatty to confessional. Emily reveals that, after a post-college stint as a barista, she changed careers on the advice of her life coach, Vladimir. Karen suspects there’s more to this picture, and her hunch is confirmed when Emily divulges the discomfiting fact that her relationship with Vladimir, a family friend, was more than just professional. They were having sex, starting when Emily was under age. Karen prompts the young woman to indict her statutory rapist, but Emily fears the collateral damage that might follow. Emily’s parents, Vlad’s wife and kids, would all undeservedly have their lives turned upside down. Still, Emily must find some way to claim her emotional baggage, and with Karen’s help she may be able restore her self-worth to its upright position. The piece has a solid arc, and offers timely insight into some of the reasons why victims of sexual abuse can be reluctant to come forward. Much of the dialogue, however, centers on events that have happened offstage. More emphasis on the present-tense tension between the seasoned pro and the eager novice would help lift the story off the ground.

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.

LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL

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Written by James Haigney, Neal Labute & Carter Lewis

Directed by John Pierson

Always worth a look,  LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL varies from year to year in length and tone. This year’s edition is, in the best sense of the word, leaner than in previous years. The energy seldom lags, and all three cherry-picked one acts are provocative, timely and adroitly crafted.

The plot of Neil LaBute’s HATE CRIME unfolds like a James M. Cain novel. Man 2 (Chauncy Thomas) paces in his luxury hotel room, watching, appropriately enough, a documentary about alpha male animals in the wild. He is joined by likeable Man 1(Spencer Sickmann), his devoted lover who brings coffee, Danish pastries and smiles. Man 2 is understandably anxious. He wants to make sure the scheme the two of them are hatching goes off without a hitch. Here’s how it works: Man 2 is going to marry a wealthy older man. Right after the wedding, Man 2 will murder the old guy and make it look like a gay bashing incident. He and Man 1 will then live happily ever after on the dead man’s life insurance. As the two conspirators rehearse the plan, they begin to reveal symptoms of the nagging self-contempt – exacerbated by society’s biases- that leads to aberrant behavior. The play feels like Scene One of a larger story, and it would be interesting to where this 21st Century Double Indemnity would go if it were expanded to a full-length piece. As it is, we’re left with a cliff hanger. But, as always, LaBute’s mordant writing is well served by the short form. The dynamic between coolly predatory leader and eager protégé is expertly mined for both laughs and chills by Thomas and Sickmann.

In WINTER BREAK, by James Haigney, religious conversion divides an American family. Christened Joanna, a high-achieving college student (Kelly Schaschl) now insists on being called Aisha. Having adopted Sufism as her guiding influence in life, she wears a head scarf and is planning a trip to Turkey to study the Koran. Aisha’s Episcopalian mom Kitty (Autumn Dornfeld) is worried she’ll throw away her education. Her brother Bailey (Sickmann), takes a more extreme view, going as far as calling Aisha’s Facebook friends “sadistic, Nazi, anti-Semitic, homophobic delusional fanatics.” Aisha argues back, pointing out that life in the status-driven west is largely devoid of real meaning and that the “freedoms” most Americans enjoy amount to little more than empty self-indulgence. The real agenda behind the conflict is, of course, as personal as it is ideological; Aisha’s need for a sense of self is as strong as Kitty and Bailey’s fear of losing her. The action stalls somewhat as the hysterical Bailey and exasperated Aisha hit the same emotional notes too many times. When it’s cooking, though, Haigney’s intelligent script shows remarkable insight and compassion in its even-handed treatment of both sides of the debate.

The most innovative entry of the evening is Carter W. Lewis’s PERCENTAGE AMERICA,
which ruthlessly skewers a host of contemporary phenomena from online dating to presidential tweets. After meeting though a matchmaking website, Arial (Dornfeld) and Andrew (Thomas) discover they have a lot in common: Both have posted horribly misleading information on their profiles. The smart thing to do would be to call the whole thing off. Yet, once the pretense is dropped, both parties feel an exhilarating sense of relief. Honesty, they learn, can be a potent aphrodisiac. This discovery leads Arial to suggest that she and Andrew experiment with what she considers a kinky activity: deciphering the evening news. Amid all the hype, there has to be some truth, provided one is brave enough to look for it. The top story the news outlets concerns a preadolescent girl (Schaschl) who has broken into the White House rose garden and seemingly berated the president using obscene language. Dubbed variously “The Whore in The Garden”, “The Rose Garden Terrorist” and host of other epithets, the young girl becomes the object of rampant speculation. Like a modern-day Woodward and Bernstein, dig through the dirt, consult clandestine sources build their own narrative – and discover that the truth is not for the faint of heart. Lewis’s razor-sharp satire comes to life as Dornfeld and Thomas throw themselves into their roles with farcical zeal. Schachl balances their antics with arresting vulnerability as the story speeds to its dark, and unexpectedly touching, conclusion.

LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL continues through February 4, 2018 at 59E59Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Madison & Park Avenues, New York, New York. Tickets: http://www.59e59.org/index.php

SUMMER SHORTS 2017: Series B

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Of the three one acts that comprise Series B, the most confidently delivered is Chris Cragin-Day’s two-hander which probes the subject of women’s role in religion. Kim (Jennifer Ikeda), a successful professor and mother of young children, is dedicated to her egalitarian ideals as well as to her Christian faith. Cliff (Mark Boyett), with whom Kim has been friends since high school, belongs to the same church and has just been promoted to pastor. He’s eager to make a good impression, and Kim isn’t making it easy for him. She has taken the unheard-of step of writing down a woman’s name as nominee for the position of church elder. Fearful that he’ll be fired for such a blatant heresy, Cliff at first refuses to back her up on this. Kim perseveres, but she’s unable to strike a bargain until she’s willing to hear Cliff out.  A WOMAN adroitly manages to avoid becoming preachy despite its topic, and its central argument is more nuanced than the usual Patriarchy-vs-Sisterhood commonplace. Under Kel Haney’s subtle direction, Ikeda and Boyett share and endearing chemistry and shade their roles with wit and empathy.  Overall, though, the lacks heat, seeing as its core issue isn’t really an urgent debate in today’s world. There’s always room for improvement, of course. Yet all but the most archconservative Christian institutions have abolished any prohibition against female leadership, and many sects, like the Presbyterian, Mennonite, and Methodist churches (to name but a few) to have been ordaining women for decades. Cragin-Day’s heart is in the right place, but she seems to be looking in the wrong cathedral for glass ceilings.

A hip comedy of millennial manners, Lindsey Kraft and Andrew Leeds’s WEDDING BASH represents the kind of sketch material SNL should be doing but rarely delivers.  Newlyweds Dana (Rachel Napoleon) and Lonny (Donovan Mitchell) are settling into domestic life after what they believe was a magical wedding. Their dinner guests, Alan (Andy Powers) and pregnant Edi (Georgia Ximines Lifsher), don’t agree. But in today’s walk-on-eggshells culture they feel compelled not to say anything critical. Finally, Alan decides he’s had enough. Conscripting Edi into his honesty campaign, he launches into a self-righteous dressing down of the “selfish wedding” in which the guests were coerced into spending a fortune in travel and accommodations only to suffer through a pretentious ceremony a paltry supply of booze. Lonny and Dana fire back with their own frank admissions:  Those wedding gifts you thought would dazzle us? Well, think again. Things escalate from there, and the resulting chaos leaves no one unscathed. The one thing BASH lacks is a satisfying punchline, but thanks to the comedic skills of the cast, and to Rebecca Lord-Surratt’s uber-bourgeois set design, there are plenty of laughs along the way.

Neil LaBute looks under the surface of professional sports in BREAK POINT, a drama centering on a major tennis tournament. Flush with endorsement money and a staggering string of championship wins Oliver (John Garrett Greer) appears to have everything. Internally, though, it’s a different story. Oliver’s under tremendous pressure to win 20 majors, breaking Federer’s record, and to do that he’ll need to make it to the finals in the French Open. Standing in his way is a formidable opponent, who also happens to be an old acquaintance. Stan (Keilyn Durrel Jones), hasn’t had the same success as Oliver, but his prowess is undeniable—enough so that Oliver’s chance at the title could be blown during the semis. Oliver hits upon an ingenious, if ugly, solution. Stan would find himself in the money if he’s willing to throw the match. Like a surprise serve, this indecent proposal throws Stan off for a moment, but he soon rallies, volleying his own slice shots into his opponent’s court. Tensions mount as the outcome of the match and the true intensions of the players grow increasingly uncertain. Both actors bring an athlete’s poise and kineticism to the game, with the solid, meditative Jones balancing Greer’s fretful garrulousness. As a director l, LaBute’s could stand to tighten the pace, and focus the actors’ energy more forcefully. But, as always, his sharp, provocative writing remains a highlight of the festival.

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

LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL

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Written By Neil LaBute, Gabe McKinley, Cary Pepper and Adam Seidel

Directed by Kel Haney,  Michael Hogan, and John Pierson
Scenic design by Patrick Huber, lighting design by Jonathan Zelezniak , and costume design by Carla Evans.

Pound for pound, the writing in this year’s LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL isn’t as solid as in the 2016 edition, but its lighthearted tone provides a refreshing change, and the versatile cast more than matches the bar set by last year’s show.

Though the evening has no stated theme, a common thread runs through all the pieces. Whether comic or dramatic in tone, each one act play revolves around some form of contract negotiation. In Neil LaBute’s WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS, a prostitute (Clea Alsip) and her client “Bob” (Michael Hogan) lie in a hotel bed hammering out a plan for the rest of their evening together. The erotic options are literally listed on a menu, replete with moneysaving combo deals. Amid the haggling (is there really a separate charge for “horseplay”?), the two step out of their proscribed roles and begin to share a few personal details. She has many customers, of course, but Bob is a guy she can really be herself with. At least that’s the way it appears, and that’s good enough for a Bob. More than any of the specials on the menu, illusion is what the customers really want, and she knows how to serve it up. The tightest of all the festival’s offerings, VEGAS exhibits LaBute’s gift for blending comedy with unsettling insights into human despair.

In AMERICAN OUTLAWS by Adam Seidel, two men meet in an empty restaurant to discuss a shady business transaction. Mitch (Eric Dean White) is an accountant who’s out of place in the criminal underworld. Martin (Justin Ivan Brown) is cool, collected, and accustomed to violence. At first, it appears that Mitch, driven to desperation by his wife’s infidelity, wants to hire Michael to perform a mercenary task. As the negotiation progresses, though, a more complicated picture emerges. As it turns out, Mitch and Michael are both in love with the same woman, and they both work for the same mafia family (to whom Mitch is debt, thanks to a gambling addiction). Michael has an ingenious plan that will solve everyone’s problems, but it demands a sacrifice Mitch isn’t sure he’s willing to make. Seidel’s staccato dialogue has and entertaining punch to it, and the plot packs a few intriguing twists. But the balance of power remains so firmly in Michael’s court that the suspense begins to slacken over time. AMERICAN OUTLAWS has the potential to be a grim comedy in the Martin McDonagh tradition, but it needs some extra spin to keep us hooked.

Likewise, Gabe McKinley’s HOMEBODY is draft or two away from realizing the full potential of its satirical premise. Though he’s crowding 30, Jay (Michael Hogan) has no gainful employment lives at home with his mother (Donna Weinsting).  Jay once dreamed of becoming a writer, but American culture has deteriorated so severely that no one wants to publish well written novels anymore. Jay’s pessimism is challenged when hope arrives in the form of an acceptance letter. An editor at a major publisher recognizes Jay’s talent, and it looks as if a book deal is imminent. But the would-be author’s worst fears are realized when the editor calls back with bad news. In the age of Jame Frey, publishers don’t sell books, they sell writersand Jay’s mundane life isn’t the stuff of literary legend. For this to change, his mother will have to make the ultimate sacrifice. Jay’s bitter rants about the decline of literacy are spot-on, and the tango of codependency between mother and son is perceptively rendered. The story just needs to move at a faster clip to its twist ending. Like its protagonist, HOMEBODY is ambitious, but needs a good editor.

Cary Pepper’s MARK MY WORMS hinges on an ingenious comedic device. Theater director Mason (Justin Ivan Brown) is thrilled to be helming an early masterpiece by the late great modern dramatist Montclair. Equally excited is Mason’s old friend John (Eric Dean White), who will be playing the male lead.  There’s just one problem: the script is crawling with typographical errors. John’s character threatens people by pointing a bun at them, and it only gets worse from there. Yet there’s nothing the director can do about these glitches, as the playwright’s estate has insisted that the work be performed as written. When John’s scene partner Gloria (Clea Alsip) arrives, he hopes she can talk some sense into Mason. Alas, she too, having read a scholarly treatise on the subject, insists that Montclair’s use of baked goods as weapons is all part of his absurdist vision. Pepper has a keen ear for the inanities of academic-speak, and Alsip is delightfully sincere as she serves up high-level gibberish in a clipped British accent. Unfortunately, too much stage time is devoted to discussing, rather than playing, Montclair’s botched drama. Something closer to a David Ives treatment would have worked better: Establish the rules of the game quickly and confidently, then trust the audience to play along.

LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL continues through February 5, 2017 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison Avenues. Tickets: 212-279-4200 or online at 59E59.ORG.

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.

LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL

 

labuteWritten by John Doble, Peter Grandbois, Nancy Bell, GD Kimble, Neil LaBute, JJ Strong, and Lexi Wolfe

Directed by  John Pierson and  Milton Zoth

Brewed at the at the St. Louis Actor’s Studio, the LNTF is now bringing the best of its one act entries to East Coast. The selections, culled from some hundreds of cold submissions, range in tone from whimsical to disquieting. But they all reflect the rawness, wit and theatrical ingenuity that exemplifies the LaBute aesthetic.

STAND UP FOR ONESELF centers on a chance encounter at a London house party. Afflicted with a wasting disease, Lucas (Mark Ryan Anderson) doesn’t see himself as catnip to the opposite sex. Winsome Lila (Alicia Smith) begs to differ, but getting past Lucas’s cynical veneer will take persistence and ingenuity. Playwright Lexi Wolfe could stand to put her characters through a bit more strife before they reach their resolution. But her take on the male-female dynamic is a refreshing one. Lucas and Lila are on an equal footing, neither one more valid than the other. Anderson and Smith handle their UK accents well and share an appealing chemistry.

On a similar theme, Nancy Bell and Peter Grandbois’ PRESENT TENSE looks at the challenges of intimacy in the digital age. Though they seem to be meeting for an illicit tryst in a hotel room, two lovers (Justin Ivan Brown and Jenny Smith) are actually miles apart.  The two engage in some hot verbal exchanges, but the minute they get too physically close, they jump back and turn their attention to their electronic devices. They’re “connected” through the internet, but face-to-face communication is a skill that has atrophied from disuse. Brown and Smith are tenderly comic as they slowly find the courage to take a few baby steps back into the real world.

Another troubled couple drives the show’s funniest entry, THE COMEBACK SPECIAL by JJ Strong. On a cross road trip, Jesse (Michael Hogan) reluctantly visits Graceland with his girlfriend Bonnie (Alicia Smith). A music snob, Jesse  cares nothing for the “derivative” music of Elvis Presley, and wants to make haste to jazz-centric New Orleans. But Bonnie, who lives in the moment, wants to savor the historic kitsch of the Presley mansion. Their argument is about to reach a stalemate, when out of the restroom comes the King himself (Neil Magnuson). Is he really an undead Elvis? Or just a crazed impersonator who lives in the bathroom? Whatever he may be, the sequined apparition needs something from the young couple, and Jesse finally opens his suspicious mind to new musical and emotional possibilities. Magnuson’s marvelously accurate impersonation is balanced by Hogan and Smith’s deadpan reactions, and enhanced by Carla Evans’s colorful costume design.

John Doble’s COFFEE HOUSE, GREENWICH VILLAGE, offers a more macabre take on relationship dynamics. Jack (Brown), and Pamela (Jenny Smith) are on a blind date. In between interruptions from an obnoxious waiter (Anderson), they struggle to find common ground. As layers of inhibition fall away, it turns out Jack and Pamela do have a shared interest– one that may land them in a federal prison. The premise is a provocative one, but the tone isn’t quite right for the material. The opening beats are directed in a farcical key, which ultimately makes the play’s twist ending harder to believe. A more realistic, unaffected approach would have pulled the audience along more effectively.

In contrast to the relationship-driven vignettes, G.D. Kimble and Neil Labute deliver weighty examinations of political violence. Kimble’s TWO IRISHMEN ARE DIGGING A DITCH takes place in Northern Ireland, where the ghosts of The Troubles refuse to stay buried despite all the recent peace accords. In a darkened cell, a naked, badly beaten prisoner (Anderson) laughs madly as he faces a panel of unseen judges. Accused of collaborating with the IRA, the young man protests that all he did was have a few of the old-timers over to his house and let them tell their war stories. Yet his interrogators show him no mercy. In the next scene, what appears to be a casual encounter between two other neighborhood men (Magnuson and Brown), turns out to have a darker purpose. When a life is taken, the other side retaliates, and the blood feud continues. Without preaching, Kimble’s unflinching drama offers a bracingly human portrait of the impact of war on everyday lives.

An extended monologue, LaBute’s KANDAHAR also features a character on trial, facing the audience as if we were his accusers. A young G.I. (Hogan) slowly recounts the actions that may cost him his life. Without overselling the paradox, LaBute explores society’s double standard. When the young man slaughters Afghans, he is considered a war hero, but when he turns his violent instincts on his fellow soldiers and his unfaithful wife, he’s reviled as a murderer. Hogan is frighteningly convincing as the plainspoken perpetrator who unaffectedly unpacks the details of the carnage he has caused and the thoughts that ran through his head as he did so. LaBute exhibits his customary economy of form, using a theatrically simple palette to paint a complex, haunting picture of a disjointed world.

LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL continues through February 7, 2016 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison Avenues. Tickets: 212-279-4200 or online at 59E59.ORG.