August 15, 2009

“Summer Shorts 3” Falls Short

The Summer Shorts Festival of New American Short Plays is the theatrical equivalent of grazing. Playwrights—some of them quite well known—serve up small one-act morsels for theatergoers to sample. If you don’t like one at least you know it won’t last longer than 30 minutes and there’s always the hope that the next one will be more to your taste. Or at least that’s how I felt as my husband K and I showed up at the 59E59 Theaters to see Summer Shorts 3, the third installment of this seasonal showcase.

As usual, the festival is divided into two programs of four plays each. K and I had been particularly interested in seeing Series A because it includes a piece by Nancy Giles, who in addition to acting and doing voice over work is a regular—and often witty—commentator on the CBS show “Sunday Morning,” which is a favorite part of our weekend routine. Plus the grouping had a piece by Neil LaBute, who is almost always worth seeing. But before the first hour was over, I was checking my watch and wondering if I should restrict all future theatergoing to revivals.

Giles kicked off the evening with a performance piece called Things My Afro Taught Me. This had great potential since hair has always been a potent means of expression—aesthetic, political, and social—for black people. But Giles doesn't seem to have anything to add to that conversation and instead, plays it safe with rambling stories about
surviving bad haircuts and envying the way white girls flick their hair. Giles wrote the material and performs it and no director is listed in the program. It’s clear she could have used some help with styling her Afro.

At least Giles is likable. The next playlet, Death by Chocolate by John Augustine, doesn't even have that going for it. A collection of sophomoric jokes about a widow whose husband has died after choking on candy, it made me feel embarrassed for the actors—Sherry Anderson, Mary Joy and Aaron Paternoster—and annoyed at the festival’s selection committee. Augustine specializes in short plays but it's hard to believe that this was one of the best new short plays that came across the committee members' desks. Or if it is, then I really have to get serious about that revivals-only vow.

Things picked up a bit after intermission with the arrival of the LaBute play, A Second of Pleasure, a Cheeveresque rumination on love about a couple going away for a summer weekend. There are surprises—both in the way the story develops and in the way the emotional punch of the piece sneaks up on you. A large part of the credit goes to the deft performances by Margaret Colin, who I’m always happy to see on a stage, and Victor Slezak, who I’m now eager to see more of.

But the evening’s final offering, The Eternal Anniversary—a chamber musical with turn-of-the-20th-century costumes, and a fussy set—had me checking my watch again. Bill Connington’s book about a couple celebrating a 20th anniversary is less clever than it gives itself credit for being. And the music by composer Skip Kennon, who played it on a small upright piano that was wedged between the stage and the first row of the audience, is pleasant but predictable and unmemorable, although the singers—Robert W. DuSold and Leenya Rideout—did well enough by them.

So all in all, this year’s Shorts fell short for me. Of course, that’s a risk you run with grazing: sometimes you end up feeling hungry for more substantial fare.

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