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Theatre in Review: The 35th Marathon of One-Act Plays: Series C (Ensemble Studio Theatre)

Jo Mei, Don Castro in Double Suicide at Ueno Park! Photo: Gerry Goodstein

Series C is a fine example of why EST's Marathon is such a necessary part of the New York theatre scene. While the five plays presented are of varying quality, talent is everywhere, and not just among the playwrights.

Arguably the most successful of the five is The Science of Stars and Fathers and Daughters, a brief, graceful two-hander about a filial relationship over the course of several years. Tom, a divorced father, goes rowing with his young daughter, Madelyn, one evening over Memorial Day weekend. He takes her out to a spot where she can see the night sky in all its splendor. So enchanted is Madelyn that Tom suggests they make it an annual tradition. The rest of the play is a series of episodes revealing their changing dynamic as Madelyn, as is the way with adolescents, becomes more and more oppositional until she stops showing up altogether. The most poignant moment comes when Tom, alone, forlornly leaves a message on her phone, wondering where she is. The final scene brings together a more mature, college-aged Madelyn handling the oars for Tom, who has visibly aged. The playwright, Darcy Fowler, understands that showing is better than telling, and she reveals volumes about both characters with a striking economy of means. Under Linsay Firman's direction, Michael Cullen and Emma Galvin offer pitch-perfect performances.

Certainly the most imaginative entry in the series is Double Suicide at Ueno Park! Borrowing techniques of the Kabuki Theatre, the playwright, Leah Nanako Winkler, takes a crowbar to the traditional image of the Japanese geisha. (Anyone who thinks Arthur Golden's popular novel Memoirs of a Geisha is the last word on the subject is in for a stabbing shock.) Onoe and Akemi are best friends who, once a year, are allowed to visit the park of the title. Akemi exclaims, "We are so lucky to be prostitutes-in-training at Yoshiwara, the best red light district in all of Japan!" She also admonishes her sometimes obstreperous friend, saying, "A beautiful woman is barely there. She's invisible!" As time goes by, their lot proves to be less than satisfying; however, their mutual demeanor remains unstoppably cheery as they discuss days spent in cages on display for the customers, the deadening effect of sex with strangers, and the onset of syphilis. Sasha Diamond and Jo Mei play Onoe and Akemi with exactly the right touch of mock innocence. Yurika Ohno, Kana Hatakeyama, and Shiori Ichikawa are a trio of chatty cherry trees who serve as a kind of chorus, and Don Castro is a none-too-bright samurai. Winkler has a gift for savage satire that makes me eager to see what she does next, and, in John Giampietro, she has a director who is totally on her wavelength.

The Talk, by France-Luce Benson, would be distinctive if only for its characters and milieu, but it has more than that to offer. Claire, who is in her 30s, is asleep in her childhood bedroom when her mother, Manu, bursts in at 3am with a box containing....a vibrator. Manu's husband (and Claire's father) has recently died and Manu, a Haitian immigrant with very traditional values, is desperately in need of guidance about going forward. Claire, who, despite her master's degree in Eastern philosophies and a career as a yoga instructor, feels thoroughly disrespected by her mother, is mortified to find herself in this too-frank middle-of-the-night conversation. The Talk doesn't avoid a certain cutesiness, especially when Manu is tentatively fooling around with that vibrator, but there is plenty of truth here as mother and daughter awkwardly arrive at a better understanding of each other's lives. Under the direction of Elizabeth Van Dyke, Lizan Mitchell (Manu), and Sharina Martin (Claire) capture every nuance of this spiky, yet loving, relationship.

Daniel Reitz's Good Afternoon opens on an attention-getting note. Lorrie, who has recently moved to an Indianapolis suburb, finds a visitor at her door. He is Glen, who lives nearby and is compelled, by law, to inform his neighbors that he is a sex offender. Instead of slamming the door, she invites him in and probes him for the details of his crime. We learn that the mild-mannered Glen was more or less seduced by his neighbor's 15-year-old daughter; he takes full responsibility for his act, but, clearly, he was more a fool than a predator. As it happens, Lorrie knows something about aggressive teenage girls, having ruined the life of her Latin teacher when she was 14. Reitz leaves the story open-ended, but it looks as if these two damaged souls may have finally found in each other a viable partner. Haskell King and Kersti Bryan play together delicately under the direction of Jules Ochoa.

Devil Music, by Angela Hanks, is probably the least satisfying of the plays, but it still has something to offer. The title refers to a Dallas-based CD store that is going out of business. JJ and Geraldine, who work there, are sorting through inventory; they are also conducting an inventory on their relationship, which includes a time as lovers. It's over between them, much to JJ's sadness. He tries to start things up again, and whether he will be successful is left up in the air; the piece includes a trenchant monologue in which Geraldine analyzes her confused, conflicted feelings about falling in love. Under the direction of Morgan Gould, Daniel Morgan Shelley, and Crystal Lucas-Perry fully inhabit their roles.

Once again, the evening draws on Nick Francone's sets and Julian Evans' sound design, which, in Devil Music, includes a variety of pop music selections. Josh Langman's lighting includes a lovely display of stars in The Science of Stars and Fathers and Daughters, and Suzanne Chesney's costumes are solid throughout. Series C shows EST at its best, giving us a new list of writers, directors, and actors to watch out for; it ends this year's Marathon on an upbeat note. -- David Barbour

(18 June 2015)

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