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Theatre in Review: Summer Shorts Series A (59E59)

David Deblinger, Maggie Burke. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

This long-running festival of new writing puts its worst foot forward in the first of two programs. Based on the three offerings of Series A, one is forced to wonder if the pickings were especially slim this year. The most amusing piece is also the thinnest: The Helpers focuses on the reunion, after some years, of a psychotherapist and one of her patients. Retirement has not suited Dr. Jane Friedman, who is definitely headed into cranky-old-lady territory. "When you retire, you join all kind of groups, which take up much more time than your job did," she complains. "I have book group this afternoon. And I haven't finished the book. It's enormous and tedious. Something about a finch."

Jane barely tolerates Nate, the former patient, who seems almost desperate to ingratiate himself with her. She also keeps talking to the unseen Bijou, and, for a moment, I thought the producers of Summer Shorts were unwilling to spring for a stage pooch. As it happens, Bijou is the key to what ails Jane, and Nate has come back into her life to help her out and save her from public embarrassment. The Helpers, which is over before it gets started, provides further evidence of playwright Cusi Cram's wry way with a line and difficulty with plotting, both of which we have seen before. Nevertheless, Jessi D. Hill's direction is alive to every nuance between the two characters and Maggie Burke and David Deblinger play together beautifully.

After the Wedding shows the playwright Neil LaBute spinning his wheels with yet another tale of bright, affable young people who gradually reveal their utter lack of moral sense. The pair, who speak directly to us in alternating fashion, come across as thoroughly charming, cutely bickering about each other's little faults, but, since this is a LaBute play, you just know that, ten minutes in, something ghastly will happen. And so it does: Driving away from their wedding reception -- which is recounted in lighthearted detail -- she decides to fellate him, which leaves him unprepared to deal with the car filled with teenagers coming around a blind corner in the wrong lane. What follows is glaringly predictable, especially the characters' incessant assurances that they feel no guilt at all for what happens next. In any case, Maria Mileaf stages this finger exercise smoothly, and Frank Harts and Elizabeth Masucci are as perfectly vacuous as the author intends.

On the other hand, I think I can guarantee that you've never seen anything quite like This Is How It Ends. A. Rey Pamatmat's fantasy begins with Jake, a gay guy, sitting around with Annie, his best girlfriend, drinking smoothies and amusing themselves with hypotheticals about how they might behave at the end of the world. Jake says, "I would find where all the other gays are and fuck my fucking brains out." Then Annie announces that she is, in fact, the antichrist, and the doom of the entire universe is imminent. Then the action shifts to the kitchen shared by four of Annie's staff members: Death, Pestilence, Famine, and War, all played by attractive twentysomethings who bicker like the cast of Friends. War says, "Death, please don't be a bitch right now, okay?" Famine enters, announcing, "I. Am. Starving." Pestilence frets that he hasn't come up with anything new lately. "You blew your wad with AIDS," snipes Death. This leads to all sorts of wisecracks, each of them about as funny as a case of AIDS.

The apocalypse proceeds in halting fashion, slowed down by the fact that Pestilence and War are having a gay romance on the down low and are beginning to lose interest in their jobs. It concludes in a reunion between Annie and Jake that exudes a thoroughly unearned New Age bliss-out. This high-concept piece may have looked good on paper, in a sort of New Yorker-casual kind of way, but it suffers from poor construction and a marked deficit of wit. Ed Sylvanus Iskandar has staged it with remarkable confidence and the entire cast performs with verve, especially Chinaza Uche as Jake, Sathya Sridharan as the fretful Pestilence, and Patrick Cummings, whose War is a bit of a stoner.

As always, the plays are slickly presented. Rebecca Lord-Surratt's set, framed by what appear to be the walls of a partially built house, is efficiently lit by Greg MacPherson. (There are some clever UV light effects on the actors on This is How It Ends.) This year, there are extensive projections by Daniel Mueller, including some world-destroying fireballs in This Is How It Ends, and a fun fast-motion video depicting the show loading into the theatre. Amy Sutton's costumes are aptly designed to fit each character, including the enormous zebra-striped onesie for Annie in This Is How It Ends. Nick Moore's music and sound design are both solid.

This is possibly the weakest program I've ever seen at Summer Shorts, now in its tenth year; I suppose it does at least provide a showcase for some fine new acting faces, but if these plays were the best of what was available, I shudder to think what else was on tap. Here's hoping Series B redeems the summer. -- David Barbour

(2 August 2016)

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