Theatre in Review: Summer Shorts, Series B (59E59)
Neil LaBute has been one of the mainstays of the Summer Shorts series, so it's good to see him in fine form with "Break Point," the highlight of this year's B program. As the title suggests, the action unfolds in the world of tennis. Oliver, a fantastically successful player -- to be spoken of in the same breath as Nadal and Sampras -- has a clandestine meeting with Stan, an old friend and sort-of professional rival. (Why the playwright chose names that allude to a famous Hollywood comedy team I cannot say, but it's certainly distracting.) Stan's career has been nowhere near as successful, which allows for some delicious displays of one-upmanship. Complaining about celebrity in the digital era, Oliver says, "People know how much we've earned and who we date and, like, every stat we've got at their fingertips. Just like that -- bam! Where I get my nails done and who my nutritionist is. Everything!" As it happens, however, Oliver very much needs something from Stan: to throw the semifinal match they are scheduled to play against each other.
Ironically, it is Oliver's success that drives his immoral request: He has won nineteen major tournaments and if he stops there, he insists, he will be a perpetual also-ran, a footnote, forever tied with Roger Federer for the world record -- a possibility that is clearly eating him alive. One more win in a major match and he'll be king of the hill -- and, as he notes by way of self-justification, his desire "is such an American thing." But, having fought his way back following an injury, the wins aren't coming as easily as they once did and, suddenly, he is "the old guy at 33." Noting that each game is harder than the one before, he recalls the time he "lost to Roddick in five and cried like a baby all the way home. Seriously. My eyes were still wet as I'm landing at the airport in Miami, eight hours later." "In your private jet," adds Stan, unmoved.
This delicate negotiation is laced with tension fueled by years of rivalry and envy. Even after the men come to terms -- I won't say how -- the play ends on a teasingly ambiguous note, leaving us to wonder exactly what is going to happen on that court. Under the author's acute direction, John Garrett Greer nails both Oliver's entitlement and the flop sweat underlying it. KeiLyn Durrel Jones' Stan is supremely cagey and far more formidable than he at first appears.
Chris Cragin-Day's "A Woman," the most original offering on the program, focuses on a Presbyterian congregation that has issued a call for nominations to its governing body, the board of elders. Kim, a longtime congregant, has submitted a slip of paper that simply says "a woman." As far as she is concerned, any female is better than none, so long as she brings to an end the all-male status of the elders. Cliff, the pastor, gently points out that there is no precedent for a female elder, and even if the congregation accepted it, the larger church organization would not. This is fine with Kim, who adds that, in that event, she (and he) will simply try again next year. This apparently cut-and-dried conversation comes with several complicating factors: Cliff is new in his position, and he was recommended by Kim, his old high-school friend.
Despite their good humor and mutual affection, the conversation that follows is a fraught one, cutting to the heart of the dilemma facing nearly every Christian denomination today. Kel Haney's sensitive direction is aided enormously by the work of Jennifer Ikeda, quietly, charmingly relentless as Kim, and Mark Boyett, whose Cliff is torn between his faith's tradition, the need for job security, and the nagging feeling that his friend may be right. Nevertheless, "A Woman" is an odd piece in that it feels like the first scene of a much longer play. It's a little bit top-heavy with exposition, creating the feeling that the playwright is setting up situations that she hasn't yet written. In any case, it's refreshing to see Christian characters portrayed as serious-minded intellectuals. If there is a full-length version, I'm eager to see it.
The program's final offering, "Wedding Bash," is a frothy little sketch about a recently married couple who invite a couple of friends over, expecting them to kvell about their destination wedding in Sedona. The party doesn't go as planned, since the guests are in a truth-telling frame of mind. Nothing much happens beyond the exchange of insults, and the wrap-up is hasty and ill-conceived, but the actors mine the material for their fair share of laughs. Andy Powers is particularly amusing, getting the ball rolling by announcing, "It was a selfish wedding," and Georgia Ximenes Lifsher, staring sullenly over her salad dish, is an equally fine partner in criticism. Donovan Mitchell and Rachel Napoleon are the very picture of empty-headed self-absorption. And the wedding does sound ghastly: "Man, the burrito truck was out of control!" Powers says, before deciding to bare it all.
As with Series A, Rebecca Lord-Surratt's set, dominated by shoji screens, is attractive, and Greg MacPherson's lighting, Amy Sutton's costumes, and Nick Moore's sound are all solid achievements. This may be the strongest Summer Shorts season yet; both series are filled with talents you will do well to know about. -- David Barbour