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

Mariah Lee, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Stephen Guarino in Kenny's Tavern. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The first entry in this long-running festival of one-act plays could fairly be titled Summer Shorts: The Men Are Scum Edition, so thoroughly does it inventory the seemingly natural depredations of the male sex. Abby Rosebrock's Kenny's Tavern takes place in the dive bar of the title, where the fortyish Ryan and twentysomething Laura are knocking back glasses of whiskey and chatting about, of all things, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Laura has been teaching the Muriel Spark novel at the magnet school where Ryan is dean. (We are somewhere in the South, judging by the accent of Jaelyn, the sullen teenager who is -- illegally -- serving them.) The pleasant mood quickly degenerates when Laura announces she is quitting her job, with no prospect for anything better, and requires Ryan's blessing. When it isn't forthcoming, she offers him a bill of complaints about all the times she has been left alone while he enjoys his wife and kids. Perhaps most egregiously, he texted her, on Christmas -- a holiday she spent alone -- saying, "My life is so much better 'cause you're in it." Hemming and hawing, he says, "Well, you know my situation."

Not to get all Ann Landers on you, but, ladies, when you hear those words, head for the hills. The play is unclear if Ryan and Laura are sleeping with each other, but, clearly, they are entangled, entirely to Ryan's advantage. Laura wants out in the worst way, but she needs Ryan to let her go -- something he, a practiced emotional blackmailer, can never do. This is, at the least, a workable situation, but, as written, it progresses sluggishly, and the characters aren't drawn sharply enough to matter. Setting the action three days before the 2016 presidential election seems like a spurious bid for significance. More interesting is the appearance of Jaelyn, who is bright but hobbled by hostility and neglect -- among other things, she tried, and failed, twice to get accepted to Ryan and Laura's institution, even though she hasn't the faintest idea what the term "magnet school" means. In any case, this attempt at a snapshot of America in the age of Trump -- riven by sexual and class issues -- comes out rather blurry, despite solid performances by Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Stephen Guarino, and Mariah Lee, as Laura, Ryan, and Jaelyn. Jess Chayes' direction arguably could have done more to liven things up.

Chris Bohjalian's Grounded takes place 35,000 feet in the air, where Emily and Karen, flight attendants, are taking care of the first-class cabin. The neophyte Emily, surprisingly, is afraid to fly, especially over large bodies of water, a fact that ticks off the hard-bitten veteran Karen, since they're on a haul from JFK to London. Before you can say "employment counseling," Emily explains that she signed up for a job in the friendly skies on the advice of her life coach -- who, by the way, is thirty years older, her father's best friend, and her lover. And, oh yes -- they took up together when she was fifteen.

The action focuses on Karen, who takes no bull from anyone, as she dismantles Emily's illusions about Vladimir, the life coach/boyfriend/pedophile. As a measure of how messed up the affair has left Emily, she -- at least, at first -- refuses to expose Vladimir's predatory ways, for fear of upsetting her parents and her lover's deceived wife. Thanks to a combination of turbulence and Karen's tough-love advice, she begins to reconsider. Bohjalian never offers a plausible reason why Emily, who has kept her secret for nearly a decade, should suddenly spill the beans to a total stranger, and the action is rather notably lacking in tension, part of which can be ascribed to the direction of Alexander Dinelaris. On the plus side, K. K. Glick, whose delivery can remind one of Megan Mullally, has some priceless quips, especially when bullying the passengers, and Grace Experience gets at the confusion in Emily's heart.

The third play on the bill, The Living Room, focuses on an unseen male playwright who abuses his characters. We are in the room of the title, where Frank and Judy explain their predicament -- how they were captured, stripped naked, had sex, and produced the baby -- well, really, a doll -- that sits, upright and silent, on the table upstage. As Frank explains, "We're the last two white people on earth stuck as characters in a living room play." Then again, everyone's a critic: Frank adds, captiously, "But why two white people? Why isn't he writing for two black people? Who needs to see two more white people on a stage anywhere ever?"

I don't know about the aggregate question, but after ten minutes or so, I certainly didn't need to spend any additional time with this pair of white people. There is no significant action, just a bunch of jokes about the playwright, Robert O'Hara. "He likes boys," Judy whispers, pointing upward, where the author, like God, apparently lives. In another snit, she adds, "You see, this is why no one goes to see his plays. Because he is a vulgar, bitter little man, who can't go two seconds without getting political or awful. Just awful." There's also a passage during which Frank and Judy discuss slavery, substituting the words "bubble gum" for it, lest they upset the playwright. The Living Room is billed as a satire, but it is singularly without laughs, consisting as it does mostly of masochistic inside jokes about the author. O'Hara, who also directed, had the good grace to cast Kate Buddeke as Judy; Joel Reuben Ganz, who stepped into the role of Frank at the performance I attended, also acquitted himself admirably.

The production comes with a typically solid design package, featuring scenery by Rebecca Lord-Surratt, lighting by Greg Macpherson, sound design and music by Nick Moore, costumes by Amy Sutton, and projections by Joshua Langman. This is the weaker of the two Summer Shorts offerings this season, lacking in humor and heavy with accusation. The crimes of the #MeToo era should at least yield some interesting dramas to come, but here the handling is dreary and a little bit forced. -- David Barbour

(8 August 2018)

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