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First Light:
A Festival of New Short Plays

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The eleven playwrights whose works are a part of First Light, Circle East's festival of new short plays at Chashama through the end of June, aren't imposed by thematic restrictions; the plays can be (and are) about anything at all. Yet the one thing they all have in common is exactly what makes them different: a wide variety of methods of dealing with this unique and rather difficult storytelling form.

In coping with the short play as a theatre medium, not every author here is successful. But even when one of the works fails to ignite dramatic sparks, it's not long before the next play - with its new set of challenges - is upon you. Some of the plays threaten to burst out of their time constraints, while others seem to be overextended, something of a Saturday Night Live skit gone awry.

One such example is The Longshot, Richard Cottrell's entry into Program A, directed by Elaine Molinaro. Jim Ireland plays a man willing to bet too much of his money and future on a single horse race, thanks to an all-knowing gambling friend (Andrew Finney). While the race is played over the sound system, Ireland depicts its outcome with physical mannerisms and voice not far removed from Adam Sandler and, of course, the underlying problems are resolved quickly: even the dishonest gambler will do the right thing. Similarly, Ty Adams's Sooo Sad in Program B finds two women humorously musing on social and class issues while sunbathing, yet displaying shocking ignorance and apathy about the subjects. Nancy Ann Chatty and Susanna Frazer have the snottiness down, but their muted comic delivery prevents the laughs from coming through.

Two plays are set in hospitals: Lisa L. Humbertson's Lily of the Valley in Program A is a charming, if somewhat predictable portrait of a woman (Judith Hiller) quibbling with her mother (Janice O'Dell) about her physical and mental health. The performances are warm and reassuring, with Erma Duricko's controlled direction and Humbertson's light sense of humor exactly what the piece needs. Paul Knox's Informed Consent in Program B could use more humor; this story an HIV patient (Novel Idea) and a doctor treating her (Adrienne Williams) frequently plays more like an after-school special, with plenty of rumination on the plight of Nigerians suffering from AIDS. Suffering from too much social comment and not enough humanity, Informed Consent never quite feels real.

Neither does Joe Pintauro's Climate in Program B, a mini-soap opera starring Jimmy Georgiades as a struggling actor and Donna LaStella and Jo Twiss as women competing for his affections. Jude Schanzer directs the play, with its multiple locations well, but never finds an emotional core of the story. Program A's Mermaids on the Hudson, written by Anastasia Traina, has a similar problem in trying to set up an almost mythical relationship between a man (Edmund Wilkinson) and a woman (Dyanne Court), who may or may not be a mermaid. Court gives a haunting, ethereal performance, but her dialogue seldom supports her as a fully-developed character; Traina is going for a study on the nature of identity, but never quite achieves her goal. Also in Program A, David DeWitt's This Will Be the Death of Him finds two men (Timothy Devlin, Richard Hoehler) in Guatemala, searching for evidence relating to a possible hate crime, with Eddie Marrero playing a police officer who may have more information than he is willing to divulge. DeWitt strongly establishes the relationships, but has trouble bringing the play to a close; his work, like Pintauro's and Traina's, could benefit from longer plays that would allow them to develop their ideas more fully.

That's certainly not a problem for three of the plays, two of which are one-person affairs. Betty Shamieh's Love in Program B is from her series of monologues called Chocolate In Heat - Growing Up Arab in America, and deals with a young man (Piter Fattouche) of noble birth whose obligations and responsibilities to his people, family, and himself, are severely tested as he tries to form relationships in the United States. Fattouche invests all his characters with exacting, rich portrayals, even when they only have a line or two. Anne-Marie Cusson plays only one character in Your Call Is Important, Craig Lucas's tour de force in Program A. She chronicles, with great humor and emotion, difference between life in the city and life in the country, and the difficulties in maintaining relationships in the hardest of times. Coping with an insensitive boyfriend, an ill mother, and jangled nerves gained from contact with insensitive New Yorkers, her travails are by turns Seinfeld-esque and tragic. Brilliantly directed by Marie-Louise Miller, Lucas's work is almost a three act play in 20 minutes. Program B's Vert-Galant, written and directed by Jon Fraser, is likewise story-heavy, an occasionally Twilight Zone-ish meditation on trust. Set in France, an American tourist (James Ryan Caldwell) who's fallen in love with a local gadabout faces prices for even the most momentary of indiscretions he never planned. To say more would spoil the story, which unfolds and builds upon itself more intriguingly than any other play save Lucas's, but Fattouche, from Love, makes a highly credible reappearance in a very different role that casts him as one of the most interesting and versatile of the festival's performers.

The final play in Program B, The Fuqua, Slone, Reisenglass Appraisal is in something of a class by itself, being a purely theatrical version of the type of skit seen elsewhere, exactly as long and as clear (or unclear) as it needs to be. Sharply written by Lawrence Harvey Schulman and directed with seemingly casual poise by Guy Giarrizzo, the premise is simple: Dr. Mead (Joel Rooks) administers Peter (Duane Noch) a test (named in the title) with increasingly outrageous queries about his knowledge of a variety of subjects. Little more than just this series of questions, the play builds - as the audience's waves of laughter permit - into an examination of the latent prejudices and stereotyping of which we all, on some level, are aware.

Rooks and Noch give the finest-honed performances of either program in the festival's funniest and most thought-provoking play, and give the festival its strongest one-two punch with their show and Vert-Galant at the end of Program B. Yet, Cusson's sensitive, beguiling portrayal in Your Call Is Important is likely to be as striking and memorable. If none of the other plays in First Light quite reach the level of these three works, they alone make the festival worthy of consideration, and the short play as worthy of notice and consideration on 42nd Street this summer.

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Circle East Theater Company
First Light: A Festival of New Short Plays
Through June 29
Chashama, 135 West 42nd Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.252.5510