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Theatre in Review: Summer Shorts Series B (Throughline Artists/59E59)

Blake DeLong, Christina Sparks. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The conclusion of war brings neither happiness nor peace in Lucky, Sharr White's tense and mysterious two-hander, which kicks off Series B of this festival of one-acts on a strong, satisfying note. World War II is over and the boys have come back home, but Meredith and her husband, Phil, are experiencing a forced reunion in a motel room in the small town where they grew up. Since peace was declared, Phil has been missing; the only reason for his return now is the death of his father. As Meredith reports, his family has been worried sick; she has moved out of their house -- the arrangement having proved too uncomfortable, under the circumstances -- getting herself a rented room and a job as a saleslady in a local store. Phil receives this information with minimal comment and a blank stare.

Indeed, Phil's next move is anyone's guess; he certainly doesn't know. Clearly the victim of a nervous breakdown, he is unable to articulate what happened to him or what, if anything, he feels. He does admit to an inability to stay for long in one place before a certain feeling of restlessness, mixed with panic, takes over. He understands that he has brought shame to his loved ones -- he very well may have contributed to his father's death -- but he remains paralyzed.

White is especially good at laying out Meredith's impossible position among her gossipy, judgmental friends and neighbors. (Speaking about Phil's mother, who has suffered similarly, she says, "It's not easy getting torn to pieces in front of everyone by your neighbors who call themselves God-fearing Christians, but it's nothing new, either, is it?") Neither divorced from Phil nor able to account for his whereabouts, Meredith is trapped in a holding pattern, working all day and spending her nights glued to the radio with her aging, bibulous landlady. She comes to the motel bearing divorce papers that neither she nor Phil is eager to sign, but if not that, what?

J. J. Kandel's beautifully controlled direction ensures that this marital stalemate remains gripping throughout. Blake DeLong's Phil is, despite his withholding manner, in obvious pain as he struggles to articulate the ways in which his soul has been shattered. Christine Spang's Meredith is both consumed with loneliness and outraged by the turn her life has taken; as her demands for an explanation aren't met, her frustration grows visibly, as does her longing for a seemingly irretrievable past. Together, they deftly handle such bits of business as a little tug of war over the removal of her raincoat and the mutual production of flasks, in the hope that a couple of snorts will produce some candor.

Lucky never reveals the full truth about Phil's agony, but, in a moving speech, he explains how, faced with the senseless killing and squalor of war, he made a kind of mental adjustment that he credits with keeping him alive -- and which now prevents him from returning home. This is a fine dramatic miniature, both engaging on its own terms and a powerful reminder that popular notions of the good war and the greatest generation are the most transparent of clichés.

Next to Lucky, Providence, the next offering, is little more than piffle. This slight comedy of bad manners focuses on Michael and Renee, young marrieds who have returned to Michael's hometown (see the title) for his sister's wedding. Michael is from an unreconstructed, old-school Italian clan, the kind of crowd that looks on Renee, who is Jewish, as either exotic or an interloper. Their mildly amusing bickering is interrupted by Pauly, the groom-to-be, who is experiencing wedding-eve jitters; the main idea is that his questions reveal unexpected fault lines in Michael and Renee's relationship, but the playwright, Nancy Bleemer, never makes the characters engaging.

Topics of conversation include Michael's childhood bedroom, which has been preserved as a shrine; Renee's ongoing need for a Tampax; the difference between capons and Cornish hens; and "the game," an oddball storytelling ritual that doesn't reveal as much as the playwright intends. Jake Robinson and Lewin are convincing as a long-term pair, and if Nathan Wallace seems a little uncomfortable as Pauly, it's probably the fault of the writing. Ivey Lowe's direction does little to shape the piece.

Much more engaging -- and timelier -- is Appomattox, in which the issue of reparations for slavery destroys a friendship. Joe, who is white, is jazzed about the news that students at Georgetown University are demanding the addition of a small fee -- fifty dollars a year -- to their tuition, the money to be disbursed to the descendants of slaves owned by the Jesuits who founded the school. (Talk about ripped from the headlines: This story was in the news as recently as April.)

Joe thinks this development is simply swell and he can't understand why Frank is unimpressed. But, as the latter points out, the money is, essentially, bupkis. This leads to a discussion of what would be "a fair price" for those "whose ancestors were used as collateral to keep a university afloat." Frank would rather not have this conversation but, under Joe's prodding, offers a scalding lesson on Brooks Brothers' history of making livery for house slaves, moving on to indict "all kinds of companies. AIG, Lehman Brothers, USA Today, even. Barclays. Wait'll Jay-Z hears about that one. New York Life? About one-third of their first however many policies, like one thousand or so, were to insure slaves for owners. I shit you not. God Bless America." I'm unclear how USA Today, founded in 1982, fits in this argument; otherwise, it hits the mark unerringly.

As is often the case with Neil LaBute's plays, Appomattox is afflicted with a certain glibness, marked by his overuse of characters who initially come across as engaging but all too quickly are revealed to be clueless or callous. Joe is one of these, and, after a few minutes, it's hard to see why he and Frank are friends at all. Still, the dialogue frequently crackles, and this is a subject that few, if any, playwrights have been willing to tackle. Ro Boddie and Jack Mikesell pursue the debate with the same skill with which they toss a football around the stage, no doubt thanks to the taut direction of Duane Boutté. Appomattox is one of LaBute's better recent plays and it caps a better-than-average edition of Summer Shorts, a series that continues to display its vitality. --David Barbour

(5 August 2019)

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