Series A of this year’s Summer Shorts: 13th Festival of New American Short Plays is unified around the theme of death and dying and how it affects the living. Lest you think that this sounds morbid, the three provocative one-act plays that make up this first program are so beautifully handled that this is a superior theatrical evening in three totally different styles. Unlike many evenings of one acts, the productions of all three are worth of your attention and could not be bettered.
First up is the curtain raiser, “Interior,” Nick Payne’s translation/adaptation of the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, the Belgian Nobel Prize winner best known today for the symbolist opera Pelléas and Mélisande. Not surprising that Payne would be attracted to this work as his own Constellations and Incognito are equally poetic. An Old Man and a Stranger hide among the willows in a garden of a family who sit around their hearth, never guessing that the men have found their daughter and sibling drowned. Neither man wants to shatter their contentment and break the news as they watch the oblivious family go about their usual evening routine. However, when the Old Man’s two granddaughters arrive to say that the villagers are on the way up to the house, he must go and knock on the door to deliver his sad message.
Although the script states that we should be able to see the family through their windows, director Rory McGregor and projection designer Joshua Langman have chosen to use a slide projection of the house instead, which morphs into an art nouveau sculpture of trees. However, due to the subtle and poetic acting of Bill Buell as the Old Man and Jordan Bellow as the Stranger, we never miss the fact that we do not see what they are seeing but see it through their eyes. The play delineates both the feelings of the transiency of time (the girl was alive only this morning when the old man met her by the river) and how tragic news will change people’s day to day lives forever. Though no more than ten minutes, “Interior” is a beautifully conceived work and unforgettable. (McGregor is also associate director on Payne’s “A Life,” just opening on Broadway this month.)
Up second is Danielle Trzcinski’s delightfully comic “The Bridge Play.” John, a melancholy middle-aged man who thinks he has nothing left to live for, is getting ready to jump off of the George Washington Bridge when he is interrupted by Alex, a high school senior who is passing by in his car. Whether Alex is simply curious or wants to keep him from jumping we never know. However, when Alex starts taping him with his smart phone as he has a “feeling that this video could go viral,” John stops to argue with him. Alex’s inaccurate beliefs about middle-aged people not having sex also infuriate him. While John wants him to leave in order not to traumatize him, Alex thinks that this could be a good story for his college essay, making his different from all the others.
Then Alex gets a phone call from a friend who needs help with a clogged toilet – which John is able to explain over the phone. The next time Alex’s phone goes off it is in John’s pocket which, of course, keeps him from jumping as he has to give it back and hear who is calling. Ultimately, it transpires that Alex has his own problem and John is able to help him. The ending leads to some male bonding that is quite sweet. Under the direction of Sarah Cronk, Christopher Dylan White as the wisecracking Alex and James P. Rees as the dour John give appealing performances, with Rees’ deadpan answers to White’s smart-alecky gibes.
Courtney Baron’s “Here I Lie” is an unusual narrative play told in alternating monologues addressed to us the audience, though the two characters eventually get around to addressing each other. Maris, a reader for a book publishing firm, comes across a memoir of a man who is dying of cancer. She sees memoir as an important tool as if someone tells you their story, you can learn something about yourself through them.
When her editor rejects the manuscript as badly written, Maris lets it slip out that she has ovarian cancer and knows what he is going through. She discovers that she likes the attention from the people around her: friends, family, co-workers and her boyfriend become concerned about her condition. As a result she makes herself sicker to gain more sympathy, following her illness to its logical conclusion.
Joseph is a male nurse who specialized in geriatrics and now works in neonatal ICU at a private hospital. He envies the patients the care they are given. When he accidentally takes the wrong medicine and gives himself symptoms the doctors cannot decipher, he decides to keep it up. He sees nursing as being like a reading a detective novel, since you only know as many of the clues as have been revealed by the author, and you have to go with the facts you have been given. He makes himself sicker, becoming a medical phenomenon with the doctors never discovering the causes of his unexplained illnesses.
“Here Is Lies” is quite engrossing but it is a bit too long as the two characters’ stories continue in the direction they are going. The play is also a bit mysterious as the characters at times seem to be in the desert, at other times in a climate where it is snowing. Nevertheless, under Maria Mileaf’s assured direction, Libe Barer as Maris and Robbie Tann as Joseph are both bright and charming as well as wise, except about themselves. We enjoy their company even as their stories become weirder. As in all three plays, Amy Sutton’s costumes are pitch-perfect for the assorted characters. Rebecca Lord-Surrat’s unit setting works well for all three plays despite their different locales which are beautifully lit by Greg Macpherson in three different colors.
Summer Shorts 2019: 13th Festival of New American Plays: Series A (through August 25 in repertory with Series B)
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-892-7999 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission