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

Dana Watkins. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Prayers have been answered: After a dispiriting Series A, the annual Summer Shorts series of one-acts, now in its tenth year, presents a Series B packed with acting, directing, and writing talent. The opener, Black Flag, introduces a new-to-New-York playwright, Idris Goodwin, who, I hope, we'll be getting to know better. He zeros in on a college dorm in New York on the first day of the fall semester. Sydney, who is white, and Deja, who is black, are unpacking their things; having gotten to know each other a bit over the summer via social media, they are already semi-friends, making plans to attend the first mixer of the year. Then Sydney pulls out of her suitcase a Confederate flag, which she plans to hang on the wall.

It's safe to say that the audience is as stunned as Deja, who stares at the flag in a state of shock. Sydney quickly adds that it is a gift from her mother, who wants to guarantee that her daughter doesn't forget her "heritage." (Later, Sydney will say it represents her "home and culture, the good things.") Deja, who, more than anything, doesn't want trouble, wearily concedes that what happens on Sydney's side of the room is her business. Nevertheless, a gulf has opened up that won't be easily bridged -- and which deepens when Deja returns to the room one night with Harry, her Japanese-American boyfriend, and their tentative lovemaking is interrupted by Sydney, soused on Long Island iced teas and ready to rumble about identity politics.

Working with notable economy, Goodwin needs only three characters and a simple, straightforward situation to evoke the racial conflicts and often-unintended microaggressions that bedevil American society today. He allows Sydney -- who honestly believes herself to be prejudice-free -- her innocence while making devastatingly clear her utter tone-deafness when it comes to the effect the flag has on Deja. He also gives Sydney an incisive monologue recounting the moment when, back home for a visit, she began to come to grips with the implications of her heritage. At the same time, he refuses to let her off the hook, especially in a climactic scene in which Deja forces her to take responsibility for her actions.

It's a slightly shaky premise -- it's hard to imagine that flag being tolerated in an East Coast liberal arts college -- but, under Logan Vaughn's direction, the crosscurrents of tension are always evident, even in the most casual of exchanges. Francesca Carpanini captures Sydney's growing awareness that she might not occupy the moral high ground, and Suzette Azariah Gunn fairly bristles with unspoken thoughts and feelings as Deja. Ruy Iskandar is most amusing as Harry, who finds the presence of the Stars and Bars to be a potent anti-aphrodisiac.

The title character of Queen is a lady of the night who has seen better days; Amy Sutton's costume design -- a cheap leopard print coat, a dress that reveals but doesn't flatter, and high heels so punishing that Queen prefers to carry them by hand -- pretty much tells the whole story. Each day, around six, Queen wanders into an Italian restaurant where Joe, the owner, cooks up a steak and salad for her. Today, however, Queen is adamant about one thing: If anybody asks, she showed up at least ten minutes earlier. Exactly why she demands this doesn't immediately become clear, and by the time it does, we are enmeshed in a tangle of love and longing from which there is seemingly no escape. Based on a short story by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, the play traffics in clichés -- the whore with a heart of gold and the nice guy on the sidelines who loves her -- but Casandera M.J. Lollar and Saverio Tuzzolo make Queen and Joe into living, breathing human beings, caught in a dilemma that love can't repair. Alexander Dinelaris -- who, among other things, wrote the book for the musical On Your Feet! and took home an Oscar for cowriting the screenplay of Birdman -- supplies dialogue that cuts to the heart of the matter, and Victor Slezak's direction results in acutely sensitive performances.

The triple bill's most imaginative offering, The Dark Clothes of Night, begins as a parody of a Raymond Chandler thriller, with a tough-guy detective named Burke, some hilariously overripe narration, and a plot involving duplicitous twin sisters and their dying millionaire father that appropriates large chunks of The Big Sleep. In fact, we are in the fevered imagination of Rob Marlowe, a mild-mannered professor of film who is at odds with the women in his life, including his neglected wife and a student who has no use for his obsession with the femme fatale throughout Western cultural history. (Among other things, he learns that lecturing about the persistence of the vagina dentata myth can lose a guy his job.) The action jumps amusingly between the increasingly convoluted thriller -- Which sister is dead? Which sister is working overtime to seduce Burke? -- and Marlowe's rolling calamity of a personal life, climaxing in a moment of pure comic schizophrenia. The playwright, Richard Alfredo, has a keen ear for both literary satire and interpersonal takedowns; he also manages to make Marlowe, who is clearly the author of his own problems, into a sympathetic figure.

Dinelaris, who directed, keeps the pace light and lively, aided by Dana Watkins, who, as Burke/Marlowe, is both hard-boiled and weak-willed, as the occasion demands. James Rees turns in a mini tour de force as half a dozen characters, including two very different psychotherapists, but the honors go to Sinem Meltem Dogan in five roles -- including those treacherous twins -- a task that requires an array of split-second costume changes. (More kudos to Sutton).

As was true of Series A, the rest of the production team, including set designer Rebecca Lord-Surratt, lighting designer Greg MacPherson, sound designer/composer Nick Moore, and projection designer Daniel Mueller, make totally solid contributions. Mueller's atmospheric projects add enormously to the lurid atmosphere of the film noir scenes in The Dark Clothes of Night. Summer Shorts Series B does exactly what this fine program is meant to do, acting as a calling card for a bevy of creative talents, all of whom are worth looking out for. -- David Barbour

(15 August 2016)

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