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

Libe Barer, Robbie Tann. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

It's not often that one encounters a play with the unsettlingly weird vibe of Courtney Baron's Here I Lie. It consists of intertwined monologues by a pair of characters who are startlingly candid about their flagrant dishonesty and behavior that is equally self-aggrandizing and self-destructive. Maris is a young Southern Ivy graduate working for a top publishing company. "A budding Nan Talese" is how she puts it, but, as it happens, she finds a different path to fame. Pulling a memoir by a cancer patient out of the slush pile -- it is execrably written, she admits, but she finds it touching -- she presents it to her editor, who isn't at all pleased. Fearing that "she is going to downsize me," Maris quickly tells her boss, "That manuscript really touched me...It touched me because I know what the writer is going through." Not only is this comment a conversation stopper, it gets Maris a promotion to editor, with the cancer memoir as her first project. From there it's one small step to full-on deceit, and before long, everyone -- friends and family alike -- is convinced that Maris isn't long for this world.

Joseph, a nurse, is showing all sorts of worrying symptoms of illness -- or is he? -- but he is more interested in the premature infant brought into the neonatal ICU where he works. Partly because no one comes to visit the tiny boy, Joseph becomes obsessed with him, overseeing his progress (or lack thereof), even hanging around long after his daily shift is over. He names him Joseph Junior and begins to wonder how he might be able to take custody -- to the point that he considers trying to marry the feckless, drug-addicted mother in order to get his hands on him.

Maris and Joseph's stories combine to form a double helix of mendacity and malice; the kind of people one crosses the street to avoid, they would fit comfortably in nearly any novel by Ruth Rendell. Thanks to Baron's icily precise writing and a couple of first-rate performances by fresh faces, Here I Lie makes these human train wrecks seem oddly seductive. Libe Barer's Maris is possessed of the ironclad logic to which only the insane have access, whether she is explaining how, during a business lunch, she retires to the ladies' room to induce vomiting (the better to make herself look wasted), or how, enlisted as a bridesmaid at a friend's wedding, she wheels herself up the aisle, hijacking the spotlight. Robbie Tann makes Joseph's blithe indifference to diagnoses of leukoplakia and aplastic anemia as disturbing as his inappropriate possessiveness toward Joseph Jr. It's clear from the opening speeches that neither story can end well; it's evidence of Baron's skill that she keeps one watching, tensely anticipating the crack-up to come.

It's also a tribute to Barer and Tann that they skate right past their script's obvious implausibilities -- Could Maris fool everyone, even her doctors? Mightn't Joseph's behavior raise red flags at the hospital? -- investing their characters with a dark fascination. Tann does especially well with a subplot, involving a girlfriend with an unusual imperfection, that, however gripping, briefly leads the action into a cul-de-sac. Credit director Maria Mileaf for helping her cast achieve such mastery of this distasteful material; Here I Lie might make your skin crawl, but you won't be bored.

The other two offerings in this annual two-part festival of one-acts are rather less memorable. The Bridge Play, about an encounter on the George Washington Bridge between a suicidal middle-aged man and a wisecracking teen, is a fairly standard laugh-and-a-tear exercise that makes frivolous use of a deadly serious subject. John, who feels he has nothing to live for, is about to toss himself into the Hudson when Alex, a high school senior, intervenes. John threatens Alex with the only object at hand, a Dr. Pepper bottle. "It's plastic," Alex sagely notes. A true member of his generation, Alex asks if he can use his smartphone to film John's leap, saying excitedly, "I have a feeling this video could go viral!"

The characters bicker, cueing jokes about sex (Alex thinks people stop having it before reaching the senescent age of thirty-five), college essays (Alex suggests that a well-written account of John's death could get him accepted at a good school), and the right way to unclog a toilet. Of course, Alex also suffers from hidden heartbreak, the revelation of which leads to an impromptu friendship and a tag line that makes nonsense of everything we've previously seen. Sarah Cronk's direction is solid enough and James P. Rees delivers John's apoplectic line readings like a true pro. Christopher Dylan White gives Alex a series of slow-on-the-uptake responses that make the thin, sitcom-style material sound better than it is. But this is a piece of melted marshmallow masquerading as a black comedy.

You don't see too many Maurice Maeterlinck revivals, and if Interior is a good example, there's reason for that; even with its brief running time, it is a draggy exercise in inaction, loaded with portentous dialogue signifying very little. (The most interesting thing about it is why Nick Payne, the fast-rising British playwright, felt the need to adapt this deeply obscure work by a Belgian playwright whose works long ago fell out of the standard repertory.) Interior focuses on an Old Man and a Stranger who arrive at the house of a family, bringing the news that one of their daughters has been found dead. (Like the characters, the location and time frame and also nonspecific.) Neither man can bring himself to deliver their grim message, however; they remain frozen, staring at the activity inside. Even when the Old Man finally moves forward, nothing really happens: Bill Buell (who plays him) is left standing far downstage, staring ahead, while the others -- the men have been joined by two young women -- provide the sparest possible account of the encounter. Buell, as always, does his best, and there is striking work from Jordan Bellow as his reluctant companion. The additions of an intrusively loud a cappella chorus of offstage peasants (sound design by Nick Moore) and cosmic projections (set design by Rebecca Lord-Surratt) only add to the atmosphere of pretension.

As always with Summer Shorts, you pays your money and you takes your chances. But there is plenty of fine acting in Series A and, in the case of Here I Lie, a genuinely creepy exercise in abnormal psychology. It's the last piece of the evening, but at least its predecessors don't overstay. --David Barbour

(30 July 2019)

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