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

Orlagh Cassidy and Brontë England-Nelson. Photo: Carol Rosegg

This annual festival of one-acts usually packs a surprise or two, but a razor-sharp comedy about Ayn Rand? "Acolyte," the highlight of the evening, features Rand at home with her husband Frank O'Connor one night in 1954. Their guests are Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, only in their mid-twenties and already trusted members of the Objectivist inner circle. Chez Rand, mere cocktail chatter is forbidden: The air is filled with a lively debate about Plato and Aristotle. Rand steers the conversation toward the issue of emotions and the role they play in human existence; more specifically, she turns to the topic of desire, and, before you know it, she is suggesting -- with impeccable logic -- that it would only be the height of rationality if she and Nathaniel started sleeping together.

If you've ever read Barbara Branden's remarkable biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand, you'll know that Rand and Nathaniel began an affair with the reluctant consent of their spouses. You might not be surprised to know that, after that night, it was all downhill: The Brandens' marriage never recovered and, eventually, Rand banned them as apostates. Nathaniel renounced Rand in return and Barbara went on to write the biography, which managed to be both deeply sympathetic and something of a hatchet job. The playwright, Graham Moore (whose credits include the film The Imitation Game), isn't without sympathy for Rand, either, but that doesn't stop him from portraying her as a master manipulator with a keen appreciation of her hold over the young acolytes Nathaniel and Barbara. She also isn't afraid to use her inside knowledge of their marriage -- she has wormed an admission of sexual dissatisfaction out of Barbara -- to achieve her ends. In Moore's view, Rand is such a smooth talker that she nearly convinces Barbara that Nathaniel's infidelity might be the best thing that ever happened to her.

Under Alexander Dinelaris' taut direction, each member of the cast delivers. Orlagh Cassidy's Rand is domineering and selfish, but also possessed of star magnetism and slashing wit. (She has one speech, describing the tortured relationship both liberals and conservatives have with capitalism, that conveys how formidable she could be.) However, she has an equally tough antagonist in Brontë England-Nelson, a newcomer who brings to mind the young Laura Linney, especially when delivering a classic takedown of the woman she professes to worship. ("You're just like every other street corner preacher with a Bible in one hand and a collection jar in the other," Barbara says -- and she's just getting started.) Sam Lilja's blankly adoring Nathaniel is a classic study of a handsome, empty young man whose identity is entirely rooted in his mentor's approval. (It is probably no coincidence that, in later years, Branden's practice as a psychotherapist was based entirely on the importance of self-esteem.) Ted Koch is touching and gifted with spot-on timing as Frank, who, knowing that he isn't batting in the same intellectual league as the others, opts to view them through a whiskey haze. At one point, Rand says she wants the affair out in the open, because "to deceive would be as immoral as to refrain." "I'm afraid I'm lost," Barbara says. "You'll get used to it," mumbles Frank in a seen-it-all voice that calls down an enormous laugh.

A fully clawed intellectual catfight, "Acolyte" is sufficiently gripping that one has to wonder if the material might not be expanded into a full-length evening. There's much more to the unhappy story of this quartet, and, based on the evidence, Moore is probably the man to tell it.

The title character of Melissa Ross' "Jack" is an 18-year-old dog who, as the play begins, has just passed away. He was jointly owned by exes George and Maggie, and was in George's possession when the decision to terminate had to be made. It's the day after and a vengeful Maggie is out to get George for making the decision without her. Despite the sad subject matter, what follows is frequently hilarious. Despite their obvious affection for their pet, he has become a proxy in the unending battle over their dead marriage. As they struggle to come to some kind of agreement, we see the dynamic -- she is neurotically demonstrative, he is almost infuriatingly logical -- that caused them to end up in divorce court. Ross has a fine ear for the absurdities of her characters' arguments -- I was particularly taken with Maggie's assertion that "It is cold to address someone by their name in the middle of an argument" -- yet she treats this beleaguered pair with unfailing sympathy. Before long, you realize that they have lost much more than Jack.

At the performance I attended, Aaron Roman Weiner took over the role of George from Quincy Dunn-Baker, but he played altogether fluently with Claire Karpen as Maggie. This is no small feat, as the intricately overlapping dialogue must be performed just so if we are to understand this pair. Clearly, Mimi O'Donnell, who directed, has provided her actors with a solid foundation.

After these two offerings, the third, "Playing God," is a disappointment. Alan Zweibel's playlet is a limp television comedy sketch in which a certain Supreme Being descends to earth to teach a thing or two to a selfish obstetrician who has convinced a patient to undergo induced labor, thus allowing him to go skiing in Chile. God's plan involves humiliating the doctor in a game of squash. The piece is a poorly structured assemblage of gag lines that don't pay off. Bill Buell, as always, is a pleasure to have around -- despite having to say lines like, "I'm God, dammit!,"-- and Welker White is his snappish assistant, who is tired of hearing about His past glories. ("Again with the Red Sea....") Dana Watkins is the odious baby doctor. Maria Mileaf directed, to no discernible effect.

Still, two out of three is a fine batting average. The set, by Rebecca Lord-Surratt, makes good use of shoji screens to create a different environment for each play. Greg MacPherson's lighting is solid and Amy Sutton's costumes are good, especially the period wear for "Acolyte." Nick Moore's sound design makes entertaining use of such pop hits as Pete Townshend's "My Love Opened the Door" and Calvin Harris' "This is What You Came For," along with some telling effects for God. There's also an amusing moment in "Playing God" when Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" morphs into Louis Armstrong's "Go Down, Moses."

Nicholas Hussong, the projection designer, provides a nice leafy New York backdrop for "Jack," but mostly he has been engaged to provide a promotional video for a plan, initiated by Neil LaBute, to turn plays from the Summer Shorts series into films. Of course, they will take your money, should you wish to offer support. This is a laudable project, to be sure, but to make a paying theatre audience sit through this frank piece of advertising is certainly dispiriting. It's the functional equivalent of all those ads for Italian beer and designer suitcases that we are subjected to in the movies these days. Can't the theatre just be the theatre?Nevertheless, this is the best evening at Summer Shorts in several years. -- David Barbour

(31 July 2017)

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