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Summer Shorts 2017: Festival of New American Short Plays – Series A

The annual one-act play festival opens with a delightful triplebill around couples arguing - but over very unusual issues.

Quincy Dunn-Baker and Claire Karpen in a scene from Melissa Ross’ “Jack,” part of Summer Shorts 2017 – Series A (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

An evening of one-act plays is best when they are unified around a single theme or the plays have something in common. Series A of Summer Shorts 2017: Festival of New American Short Plays is a delightful bill around couples arguing – but over very unusual issues. The three playwrights, each with their own sensibilities, represent Oscar and Emmy winners as well as a finalist for the American Theatre Association’s Francesca Primus Prize.

The curtain opener, Jack by Melissa Ross (Of Good Stock, Nice Girl), brings together a couple (divorced for six months) for a meeting on a bench in a city park.  Their best friend Jack has died suddenly and Maggie is berating George for not calling her as he was supposed to do in their divorce agreement if an important event happened. George, however, claims he called her smart phone multiple times but she did not pick up but he did not leave a message. Finally, Maggie admits that she had her voice mail turned off but that he should have called her (new) landline, a number that she had forgotten to give him. When George asks her to lower her voice, she guesses that his new girlfriend is at the dog run which is near their bench. Eventually they get to the decision they have to make about Jack’s ashes – and Jack is not who you expect him to be.

In the course of Ross’ well-observed play, we learn everything we need to know about this incompatible couple – and probably the reasons why they divorced. Under Mimi O’Donnell’s trenchant direction, Quincy Dunn-Baker and Claire Karpen bring George and Maggie to vivid life. Rebecca Lord-Surratt’s minimal setting (simply a park bench) backed by Nicholas Hussong’s projection design gives the actors plenty of room to emote.

Bill Buell and Dana Watkins in a scene from Alan Zweibel’s “Playing God,” part of Summer Shorts 2017 – Series A (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

In Alan Zweibel’s clever comic sketch, Playing God, the Deity is put out by arrogant, egotistical Dr. Fisher, a Florida gynecologist, inducing labor early in his patient Barbara Graber so that he can go on a skiing trip in South America. Goaded on by his female Assistant who is used to his rants, God decides to teach Fisher a lesson in humility by challenging him to an unwinnable game of squash at the Boca Raton Health and Racquet Club. However, when Fisher insults the Assistant, she retaliates with even more rancor than God.

Zweibel, who has won multiple Emmy Awards for his work on Saturday Night Live, has been a recurring fixture of Summer Shorts over the years. As a comic sketch, Playing God is just the right length to not outlive its welcome. As God and his long-time assistant, Bill Buell and Welker White have an easy rapport and a quick repartee. Dana Watkins has the role of the obnoxious, self-entitled Dr. Fisher down pat. Lord-Surratt’s set design simply suggests the three needed sets. An amusing and deft bit of humor.

Sam Lilja, Orlagh Cassidy, Brontë England-Nelson and Ted Koch in a scene from Graham Moore’s “Acolyte,” part of Summer Shorts 2017 – Series A (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Acolyte by Graham Moore, Academy Award winner for his 2013 screenplay for The Imitation Game, is a more substantial play than the other two. Based on an historical occurrence in 1954, it brings together two couples, Ayn Rand (founder of Objectivism) and her husband Frank O’Connor and her follower, Nathaniel Branden and his wife Barbara, for one of her weekly dinner parties. Rand has asked the Brandens to remain after all the guests have left following a vigorous debate on Aristotelean principles versus Platonic realism.

First bringing up the definition of manliness, Rand gets to her real topic: she wants Barbara to give her permission for her husband and Rand to enter into an affair. We watch how Rand, whose theories are based on extreme self-interest, uses logic to prove her point. It is left for Barbara, with a Ph.D. in philosophy to make a final decision. This is all heady stuff both because of the ideas being bruited about but also because of the psychological manipulation that Rand is attempting to use on the Brandens. While the ideas may be complicated, the tactics and undercurrents are beautifully brought to the surface.

Orlagh Cassidy and Brontë England-Nelson in a scene from Graham Moore’s “Acolyte,” part of Summer Shorts 2017 – Series A (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Alexander Dinelaris, himself a playwright who has been previously included in Summer Shorts, directs with a sure hand, brings all four historic characters to vivid life. As Ayn Rand, Orlagh Cassidy with a suitably Russian American accent is creditable as the charismatic and quietly Machiavellian philosopher who is completely sure of herself and her ideas. Brontë England-Nelson as Barbara Branden, on the other hand, pulls out all the emotional stops as a woman fighting for the sanctity of her marriage.

Ted Koch is quietly virile as Rand’s seemingly weak and ineffectual husband who wants whatever is best for her. In the thankless role of Nathaniel Branden, who has become a yes-man for Rand, Sam Lilja makes the least impression. Lord-Surratt’s set for this play is redolent of the 1950’s as it should be. While Greg MacPherson’s lighting for the other plays is bright and sunny, the design for this play includes colorful skyscapes for a play that begins at 1 AM and transitions until morning with atmospheric mood changes. Costume designer Amy Sutton has done a fine job with the very different needs of three plays.

Summer Shorts 2017: Festival of New American Short Plays – Series A (through September 1, 2017)

59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59E59.org

Running time: one hour and 38 minutes without an intermission

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (397 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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