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

KeiLyn Durrel Jones, Joanna Christie in Sparring Partner. Photo: Carol Rosegg

It takes an old pro to redeem the second series of one-act plays currently being presented at 59E59. Series A features two awkward dramas about exploitative adulterous affairs, but it is Neil LaBute who gets it right with the Series B highlight, Sparring Partner.

The action centers on a man and a woman sitting on a park bench, playing a movie-trivia game. (One lists a pair of co-stars; the other has to guess the name of the film and then come up with another pairing, featuring one of the names from the previous entry.) They are having a fine, funny time of it, and only gradually does it slip out that they are colleagues -- he is her boss -- and this is their regular lunch hour ritual. They share a clear affection, but he is married, unhappily. As the game progresses, accompanied by plenty of teasing, it becomes obvious that the woman yearns for much more.

I hasten to add that nothing physical has happened, that he is, in fact, invested in being a gentleman about their situation. Then again, as LaBute exposes, by degrees, there's a very good chance that his ethical approach is really a way of keeping her on the string. It is the playwright's entirely original observation that what at first looks like upright behavior might really be cowardice and manipulation, and an affair of the mind can be just as exploitative as stolen hours in a cheap motel.

LaBute's script is admirably taut, with each little encounter inexorably pushing the couple toward a revelation that will mark the point of no return; as a capper, he throws in an unexpected phone call that functions neatly as a knife in the woman's heart. Under J. J. Kandel's seamless direction, Lily Kamp and Keilyn Durrel Jones play together superbly. I have sometimes criticized LaBute's work for heavy-handedness, but here his touch is admirably light, and all the more devastating for it.

Less successful is the curtain raiser, Claire Zajdel's The Plot. A dysfunctional family comedy -- every bill has to have one, it seems -- it has an eerily amusing black-comedy premise. Twentysomething siblings Frankie and Tyler -- she a first-year associate in a top law firm, he a "part-time toddler" in some kind of trendy business ("At least I don't work somewhere with a playground in the break room," Frankie snipes) arrive for a prearranged meeting with their mother at a local cemetery. They are unsure about the location and are further thrown when the lady fails to show. Instead, she directs them, via telephone, to a trio of gravesites, which she has picked out for herself, with room for her children on each side.

Well, that's not a situation we've seen before, but once it is established, the characters are left to complain about their family lot, not to mention their family plot. There are a few amusing bits: Staring at the mother's headstone, already erected while she lives, Tyler finds fault with her choice of fonts. I also liked his comment, "It's like she picked out a parking space but hasn't bought the car yet." But The Plot is undermined by a lack of action and it eventually devolves into a bill of complaints. Still, James Rees' direction is solid, and the performances -- by Molly Groome, acid to a fault as Frankie, and Jake Robinson, charmingly oafish as Tyler -- are top-drawer.

Ibis, by Eric Lane, begins as a private-eye parody, with Tyrone, a young man, consulting a female private eye, improbably named Sam Spade. There is plenty of back-and-forth about old detective movies, enough to leave one wondering where the play is headed. Then Sam drops a bomb: Hired to discover the fate of Victor, Tyrone's father, who skipped out on his family many years earlier, she has discovered the old man, alive and well and living with a wife and children. The action alternates between Tyrone's halting attempts at making a connection with the openly hostile Victor and scenes of Tyrone sparring with Sam (no, it's not her real name), who herself has a history of abuse that she'd rather not talk about. This is a lot to deal with in thirty minutes or less, and as a result, both narratives lines are cheated. (There may be a full-length work in this material.)

If Ibis disappoints, Terry Berliner's direction keeps things fairly lively and the cast is fine. Lindsey Broad is especially good at Sam's cagey ways; she also hands out some hard truths to Tyrone with elan. Deandre Sevon's sensitive handling of Tyrone makes it easy to understand why he persists in his search for his lost parent despite the odds; he also shows the very real anger tended behind his calm exterior. The role of Victor is underwritten, to say the least -- we never find out why he fled his wife and infant son -- but his gradual opening-up to Tyrone provides the play with a much-needed dramatic spine. Their final scene together is ever-so-slightly heart-wrenching.

As is the case with Series A, there is a solid design package featuring scenery by Rebecca Lord-Surratt, lighting by Greg Macpherson, sound design and music by Nick Moore, costumes by Amy Sutton, and projections by Joshua Langman; the latter are used to good effect in this series. Even if two out of three plays disappoint, Season B has plenty of rewards, thanks to the highly capable cast of mostly new faces. And Sparring Partner -- the title alludes to a song heard in 5x2, the characters' favorite Francois Ozon film -- is a little gem, a work that is likely to find a wide audience, perhaps paired with other fine LaBute one-acts like 10K and Break Point. Even if this isn't Summer Shorts' finest moment, there are things to enjoy. -- David Barbour

(8 August 2018)

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