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Ensemble Studio Theatre
Marathon 2003 Series B

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

A sense of loss permeates the second and final installment of the Ensemble Studio Theatre's Marathon of one-act plays this year; nearly every character in each of the five plays is searching for something that will have a profound impact on his or her life. Though not every play is successful as a dramatic presentation here, there is a fair amount of meaning - and some fine theatre - to be found in the evening as a whole.

The closest is Amy Staats's Changing of the Guard, which has been directed by Mark Roberts. Mama Sue (a delightful Scotty Bloch) hopes to expose her granddaughters (Julie Leedes and Diana Ruppe, both quite funny) to the London she knew with her husband, who died very suddenly, but the young women have their own ideas. Generational clashes ensue, of course, but the bittersweet tale expresses quietly and succinctly some of what the old have to teach the young and what the young have to teach the old. The humor is gentle and the emotional changes in everyone are sublimely understated. Everyone involved has done an excellent job in bringing this charming, thoughtful story to life.

John Guare's Woman At a Threshold, Beckoning, which I first encountered as part of the Brave New World series at Town Hall last year, is, textually, a much stronger, incisive piece. One of a host of works designed to find artistic response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it stood out at the time because of its deft mix of drama and humor while attempting to answer the difficult question of what makes a terrorist a terrorist.

Despite some intriguingly abstract direction by Will Pomerantz and a subdued performance by Miriam Laube as a Middle Eastern woman with a possible connection to the terrorist attacks, Woman At a Threshold, Beckoning never fulfills its promise, due primarily to an off-kilter lead performance by Andrew Weems. As John, a grand jury member who may or may not know the woman, he plays much of the show with a comic sense too broad to support the heavier turns the show must eventually take, and the production ends up crushed under its own weight.

Weems, however, would have a difficult time adjusting to audience expectations after Water Music, the piece immediately preceding. Tina Howe's uncomfortable comic trifle (directed by Pam MacKinnon) finds Shakespeare's Ophelia emerging from a hot tub in a New York City health club and pursuing the lifeguard. The show tries to draw parallels between modern and romantic ideals of love and devotion, but ends up sacrificing most meaning and emotion for cheap laughs.

Much more interesting is Lynn Rosen's Washed Up on the Potomac, directed here by Eileen Myers. Ostensibly a workplace comedy, it finds three freelance proofreaders faced with a difficult choice: the loss of their job and financial security or having their very identity and lives subsumed by the company. The three must contend with a bureaucratic mouthpiece of a supervisor (played with sharp comic flair by Joan Rosenfels) and the memories of a former coworker who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Though parts of the show are quite funny, it's asks interesting questions about exactly what all of us are willing to give up.

Leslie Ayvazian wrote and stars in Hi There, Mr. Machine, an amusing short comedy about a dieting woman facing temptation from a vending machine a few steps beyond her hotel door. As a director, Leigh Silverman's directorial input is apparently minimal, though she has worked well with Ayvazian to find a blend of humor and neurosis that keeps the woman likable throughout. Though she spends the entire play either talking to herself or the vending machine, she appears far from crazy - the play ends with the suggestion that there's no mountain this woman can't climb.

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Ensemble Studio Theatre
Marathon 2003 - Series B
Through June 21
Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 West 52nd Street
Tickets: SmartTix at 212.868.4444