The curtain raiser, Lucy Thurber’s “Unstuck,” presents a man in the throes of a nervous breakdown who can’t get off the couch. It is Pete’s birthday and he receives three visits from the women in his life who want to help him get unstuck: his sister Jackie, his married friend Sara, and his girl friend Deirdre. Jackie and Sara appear to want help of their own. Deirdre wants Peter to get off the couch and get on with his life. The problem with the play as we don’t know the cause of Pete’s breakdown or how long it has been going on, we can’t sympathize with his situation.
As a result, under the direction of Laura Savia, the acting is rather flat: Alfredo Narciso’s Pete remains an enigma, while Lauren Blumenfeld as his sister and Carmen Zilles as his friend work their hardest to get a reaction out of Pete without much result. K.K. Moggie as his girl friend Deirdre succeeds but we are never sure why.
Written and directed by Robert O’Hara (author of the remarkable Bootycandy from last season), “Built” crackles with sexual and physical tension, and is the best of the three. A middle-aged woman Mrs. Back meets a 25-year-old man in a hotel room. From their first transaction, the man Mason is a call boy for hire. They play out a scenario in which she is a former teacher who had an affair with the young man ten years ago when he was a student in her social studies class. At first, it appears that she is in control ordering him around. Little by little, he reverses the tables telling her things she didn’t know from ten years ago. As a child sex offender, she is still on probation which makes things more tense. The atmosphere becomes so thick, you could cut it with a knife.
The problem with this clever play is that we are never certain whether what we are told is true or if they are playing a game agreed upon in advance in which the rules keep changing. At the end, you won’t be able to say for sure what has happened. With the author’s assured direction, the hunky Justin Bernegger and the initially authoritative but nervous Merritt Janson play their roles to the hilt. They seem to know exactly what they are doing. A great deal of the play works on shock value which both the director and the actors make register completely.
The final play of the evening, Stella Fawn Ragsdale’s “Love Letters to a Dictator,” is a one-person show performed by actress Colby Minifie. Around the set are clothes lines with letters, photos and other items hanging from it. Minifie as a character named “Stella Fawn Ragsdale” reads us the letters she is writing to Kim Jong Il, dictator of North Korea. She identifies with him as she feels both are misunderstood by their families and others. They also share a common interest in Elvis Presley. (She is from Tennessee and his second cousin.) She describes the farm in upstate New York where she works and reveals that she did not fit into New York City where she went to be a writer.
As each letter progresses, she writes as though Kim Jong Il has answered her and as if she were responding to his questions like why she doesn’t go home to her mother. She asks him why he doesn’t make peace with his son and heir and why he doesn’t make things easier for his people. He sends her his picture, she sends him hers. She eventually writes of her troubled relationship with her family where they call her an “educated idiot.” The letters begin on September 22, 2011 and cease abruptly on December 19 of that year. Each has come to a major turning point.
While Logan Vaughn’s direction and Minifie’s acting make the reading of the letters both arresting and intriguing, we never know if Stella is really sending these letters or she is just writing them for her own amusement. And more confusing still, is she really receiving answers from the North Korean dictator or is all of this fantasy? We never know for certain. It is left up to each individual theatergoer to decide for him or herself.
The three plays in Summer Shorts – Series B leave more questions unanswered than they explain. This seems to be a new kind of theater in which the audience creates its own endings. Those who want to know something for certain had best stay away. Don’t blame the production team of Rebecca Lord-Surratt (sets), Dede Ayite (costumes), Greg MacPherson (lighting) and Isabella Carter (props) who have performed fine work allowing the plays to attempt to tell their stories.
Summer Shorts 2015 – Festival of New American Short Plays– Series B (in repertory with Series A through August 29, 2015)
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59E59.org
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission