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Summer Shorts 2018 – Festival of New American Plays: Series A

Life in Trump’s United States including predatory males and race relations is the theme of the three world premiere one acts in the annual summer festival.

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K.K. Glick and Grace Experience in a scene from Chris Bohjalian’s “Grounded,” part of Summer Shorts 2018: Series A (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

The linking theme in the three new one acts in Summer Shorts 2018 – Festival of New American Plays: Series A is life in Trump’s United States including predatory males, race relations, and the disenfranchised. While all three plays have intriguing premises only Chris Bohjalian’s “Grounded,” a first play by a novelist of long standing, is a fully-realized, dramatic experience. Having your heart in the right place or expressing righteous anger over a current wrong proves not to be enough.

Along with its twists and turns, Bohjalian’s “Grounded” is so fully explored that it is hard to believe that it is a first play. On the long wait on the runway at Kennedy Airport for a flight bound for London, stewardess Karen discovers that her co-worker, 24-year-old Emily who has been in this line of work for two years, has a fear of flying and has never flown over the ocean. When Emily begins her story she reveals that her life coach thought she was too grounded and dared her to become a stewardess.

After much prodding from Karen, it turns out that Emily was in a long term relationship with the man who was her father’s best friend and that it had gone on for years. While Karen, an older more mature woman with two children, points out that it is Emily’s responsibility to bring the man to the attention of the authorities, Emily has every possible reason why she can’t do this. The play is both timely and powerful in the #MeToo era. Under the direction of Alexander Dinelaris it is quite remarkable how he makes use of the limited space of the back of an airliner in Rebecca Lord-Surratt’s realistic setting to move the two women around so that no two conversations seem the same and we feel that we have been in several locations.

K.K. Glick and Grace Experience make the two women extremely different. Glick’s Karen is a wry, tough, together woman who believes in making the best life choices. As the twentyish Emily, Experience is both mousy and willful as she fights to defend her life and the poor decisions she has made. Much of the play is quite funny for the preposterous reasons that people use to continue in their bad habits. Ultimately, the play turns into a psychological therapy session by a mature person and a young person starting out on the wrong foot. While the ending fails to achieve a moment of transcendence, this one act play is a very satisfying theatrical experience and belies its short form.

Kate Buddeke and Joel Reuben Ganz in a scene from Robert O’Hara’s “The Living Room,” part of Summer Shorts 2018: Series A (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

After many years as a director, Robert O’Hara wowed with his own satiric plays Barbecue and Bootycandy which were critical and popular successes. His new one act, The Living Room has a witty premise but does not go anywhere. Judy and Frank are the last two white people on earth. They have been captured and are on display for audiences in a living room. They watch television, eat dinner, play checkers, reminisce about their past lives and how they got here, manipulated by their author. They know that they are figments of the imagination of the man upstairs, that is, the playwright who is a black man and never appears. Judy and Frank think there are enough plays already about white people in living rooms so maybe the author has locked them on a stage with an audience seeking escape as reparation. Maybe he should have written about two black people, they muse.

And that is about it. The satire is very mild and suggests a much deeper play that O’Hara has not written. Kate Buddeke and Joel Reuben Ganz (alternating with Adam Langdon) are personable but they can’t get laughs on zingers that don’t exist. O’Hara has directed his own play which he often does, but in this case he needed another pair of eyes and ears to tell him what wasn’t working. The design is suitable without making a statement of its own: Lord-Surratt’s living room setting is cleverly suggested by two arm chairs, a small table and an oval crocheted rug, while Amy Sutton’s costumes are comfortably contemporary. The lighting design by Greg MacPherson is required to have a great many blackouts, partly to interrupt the couple from revealing something the author is not ready to put on stage, a gimmick that palls the more it is used.

Mariah Lee, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie and Stephen Guarino in Abby Rosebrock’s “Kenny’s Tavern,” part of Summer Shorts 2018: Series A (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Although Abby Rosebrock has written several plays including Blue Ridge scheduled for production by the Atlantic Theater Company this winter, her Kenny’s Tavern” is more than a bit confused in its organization. At the back patio of the liberal local hangout for the school they work at in North Carolina, Laura (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie), a progressive teacher in her mid-20’s, and Ryan (Stephen Guarino), her boss in his mid-40’s have drinks in November, three days before the 2016 presidential election. Laura has been teaching Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to warn her students about fascism which has reared its ugly head in the primaries and debates. They both assume that Hillary Clinton will win and that fascist tendencies will be defeated. However, the real problem is that Laura and Ryan have been having a relationship outside of school and she has just found he lives with someone but has been lying to her.

The waitress Jaelyn (Mariah Lee with a fine North Carolina accent) is the 16-year-old disenfranchised niece of the owner whose mother is in prison and she is on the side of Donald Trump. She recognizes Laura from the magnet school admission’s committee which rejected her two years in a row and now she is ineligible to apply again to this school of her choice. Losing patience with Ryan, Laura announces that she hopes Trump wins so that everyone will have to examine all the predatory males around and admit “That is what’s wrong with us,” and points out to Jaelyn that Trump is not on the side of the poor and working class. Ultimately, Laura takes Jaelyn under her wing to explain to her the few choices she has.

Director Jess Chayes has worked well with the actors but has not been able to solve the play’s problems. While either story might have made a play, the two plots never really come together. Though McKenzie as Laura and Guarino as Ryan are believable characters, the author hasn’t really fleshed out either of them so that we learn very little other than that they work together at the magnet school and are more than colleagues. Jaelyn’s story seems tacked on rather than really part of Laura and Ryan’s story unless the author is suggesting that it is the fault of these kind of liberals who ignore the plight of the working class that Trump won. Ultimately, the play feels very thin and muddled in both its plotting and theme. Lord-Surratt’s minimalist patio setting is fine for its purpose while Sutton’s costumes are perfectly suitably for teachers on their way home after work.

Summer Shorts 2018 – Festival of New American Short Plays 2018: Series A (in repertory with Series B through August 31, 2018)

59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59 Theaters, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org

Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (555 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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