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.