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

The Sentinels. Meg Gibson, Michelle Beck. Photo: Carol Rosegg

The focus is on the ladies in the first entry in this valuable summer festival of one-acts. Two of the three offerings feature very tricky male-female encounters and in both cases the woman drives the agenda. The third is an elegant, and surprisingly engaging, consideration of women affected by an episode from recent history that most of us would rather forget.

In Neil LaBute's 10K a man and woman accidentally meet in the park where they take their morning runs. He offers to accompany her and off they go, burning calories and baring their souls at the same pace. Think Brief Encounter, with running shoes and Fitbits, and you've got the idea. Both are unhappily married, she to a businessman who travels incessantly, he to a woman who hates the outdoors. Actually, he adds, "Her hatred of things does not actually end at nature, but it is definitely included on her rather voluminous list of stuff that she quietly despises."

Things get flirtier after a few hundred meters, with the woman coming on big-time, describing her fantasy of an ideal life with a soul mate, for whose attentions she would be most grateful, if you know what I mean. Of course, this being a LaBute play, the author makes clear that the woman is also the kind of mother who could use an intervention from Child Protective Services. And anyone familiar with the LaBute canon, with its lengthy rap sheet of violent acts, will get a tad nervous over the prospect of two strangers running alone in a deserted park, with no witnesses.

These are the days of the kinder, gentler LaBute, however, and he is mostly content to keep us guessing: Will these two simply teeter on the edge of an affair or will they give in? You'll have to see 10K to find out, but I will note that, under the author's direction, J. J. Kandel and Clea Alsip inhabit their roles with the greatest of ease -- and think of the weight they're losing during the play's run!

In Glenburn 12 WP, a young black man walks into a bar -- and, no, this is not a setup for a bad joke. Troy is weary of the Black Lives Matter-type demonstration where he has been in attendance, and he could use a relaxing beer. The bartender is strangely absent, however -- and, no fool he, Troy decides to make tracks before someone accuses him of trying to rob the place. He is stopped by Roberta, a lawyer, who appears to be a regular and who urges him to take a stool. In fact, so proprietary is Roberta that she sets them both up with drinks -- even breaking out the high-priced whiskey -- and engages the wary Troy in conversation. Roberta, a Native American, has come to toast a recently deceased friend from the reservation who followed her to New York and failed to thrive.

At first, the cagey conversation between a man and woman of two different minorities keeps us intrigued. (Despite their relative success -- Troy is studying applied molecular physics -- neither feels free of society's assumptions about them.) But there's an undertone of unease that is made even stronger as Roberta keeps inviting Troy to take a look in the bar's basement. In fact, Glenburn 12 WP hinges on a twist that is an attention-getter, but, considered later, feels obvious and melodramatic. The playwright, Vickie Ramirez, tries to pack too much material into too short a time, and she ends up tangled in her contrivances. Still, under Kel Haney's direction, the piece works as a calling card for W. Tre Davis and Tanis Parenteau, skilled performers both.

When I learned that The Sentinels was about 9/11 widows, my heart sank in expectation of a maudlin tearjerker; I should have taken into account the playwright, Matthew Lopez, who has a most original mind. The sentinels of the title are three women -- older, middle-aged, and youngish -- whose husbands worked together at a closely knit financial firm not unlike Cantor Fitzgerald, and who were killed when the towers fell. At the memorial service a year later, the three women agree to meet once a year for the 9/11 memorial service, then repair to a local diner for lunch. Interestingly, Lopez tells his story backwards; it begins in 2011, when Alice, the eldest of the trio, is alone with Kelly, who is remarried and pregnant. Kelly, who moved away a few years earlier and is totally taken up with her present life, says, in passing, "I'm not a widow anymore." "You'll always be a widow," replies Alice, in a tone that is both chiding and faintly fearful. Conspicuously missing is Christa, who, Alice notes with quiet disapproval, has given up attending altogether. Kelly adds, her tone enigmatic, "You are ever-vigilant. Even if some people want to forget, you will never let us."

From there, the action moves in reverse, showing how, in a series of brief, elliptical scenes, Alice remains faithful to her widowhood while Kelly gradually learns to look to the future and the tartly unsentimental Christa loses interest in dwelling on the past. "Don't you feel you owe it to Peter?" asks Alice. "I'm raising his daughters all by myself. I don't owe Peter anything," Christa coolly replies. The Sentinels is a touching consideration of grief and its limits -- and of the greater tragedy that can ensue when one refuses to ever let go. Lopez ends on an ironic note, at a company dinner nearly a year before that awful day, with Alice asserting that all of her husband's employees are a family. Indeed, they are, in a way that none of them could ever foresee.

Stephen Brackett's direction is full of revealing touches -- when an irritated server delivers a cocktail to an unloved customer, slamming it on the table, or when Alice instinctively recoils from a gesture of sympathy, or when a pause is filled with all sorts of unspoken feelings. All four cast members -- Meg Gibson as Alice, Michelle Beck as Kelly, Kellie Overbey as Christa, and Zuzanna Szadkowski as the waitress who observes them over the years -- offer beautifully understated performances.

Rebecca Lord-Surratt's basic set is cleanly designed and changes over quickly between plays. Greg MacPherson's lighting is equally uncluttered. Dede Ayite's costumes suit each character; she is especially acute at creating different black outfits for each of the widows in The Sentinels. Nick Moore's sound design includes birdsong and Nina Simone's "I Love Dancing" for 10K and piano music for The Sentinels. It's a truism that collections like these are inherently uneven, but none of the offerings of Series A are dull, and all three are graced with extremely fine performances. This is probably the strongest Summer Shorts program I've yet seen; it makes me eager to check out Series B. -- David Barbour

(27 July 2015)

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