Book Reviews

Laugh Lines: Short Comic Plays
Edited by Eric Lane and Nina Shengold

Book Review by Sarah Boslaugh

Laugh LinesLaugh Lines is a handy little collection of, as the title suggests, short comic plays - and a real bargain as well, with 36 plays for one to 14 actors, written by contemporary playwrights in a variety of styles. If you are in the market for a three-person play set in a baseball stadium, a one-woman funeral oration for a dead cat, or a seven-character show which exploits the cast's ability to do a Boston accent, you'll find them here. The volume is arranged alphabetically by author, from David Auburn to Garth Wingfield, and there's a helpful index by cast size.

Variety is the salient quality of this anthology, which interprets the term "play" broadly to include monologues and comedy sketches as well as bona fide one-act plays. Some of the material has been published elsewhere, some has not; some of the authors are well-known, some are not. There certainly are variations in quality, and a certain sameness in style and approach is evident among many of these works, although that may be more a reflection of the market for contemporary plays than a criticism of the editors' efforts. Be that as it may, Laugh Lines will be a welcome resource for actors and directors looking for new material (information about stage rights is included in an appendix). It's also good recreational reading and could be usefully studied by anyone preparing to write a short play. After all, it never hurts to discover how the task was accomplished by your elders and betters (entrants in playwriting contests, this means you!).

How to review so varied a collection? I decided the most useful approach was to summarize each play in turn, including the general plot and subject material, cast requirements, and anything else which struck me as being of interest. I hope this will help people find interesting material that is new to them, and encourage them to explore works by playwrights they may not have heard of before. Besides, sometimes people look for dramatic material treating or incorporating a particular topic (on the Literary Manager and Dramaturge mailing list we've had requests for, among other things, plays in which a character rides a bicycle, plays set in modern suburbia, and plays about Margaret Sanger).

My personal favorites are Your Mother's Butt by Alan Ball and The Way of All Fish by Elaine May, but no doubt you may favor a different selection. There's something for everyone in this volume and, as members of the younger generation have been known to say, it's all good. So here they are, 36 short comic plays, alphabetically by author.

Miss You by David Auburn (1M, 1F) explores three relationships among four people (each actor plays two roles) and exploits the comic possibilities of telephone hold buttons. Your Mother's Butt by Alan Ball of Six Feet Under fame (1M, 1F) concerns an unusual psychiatric session with a remarkably materialistic young man. In Alone at Last! by Gina Barnett (5M, 4F), a simple makeout session between two teenagers is complicated by the intrusion of a chorus of advice and commentary from parents, friends and other intruders. The Gallows Monologue from Sidney Ryan's "Gunpowder and Blood" by Glen Berger (1M) (part of the collection Trepidation Nation) is a backstager in which an assistant stage manager is pressed into service onstage, a task for which he is quite inadequate. Poodles by David Cale (1M), part of his solo show A Likely Story, displays the marital tribulations which ensue when one partner becomes obsessed with dogs. Ties That Bind by Eric Coble (2M) portrays the trials and tribulations of modern life as embodied in a Houdini-like magic act.

In Mistaken Identity by Sharon E. Cooper (1M, 1F), set in a pub in Leicester, England, a Hindu lesbian and a disarmingly clueless American discuss their needs and desires. Outsourced by Laura Shaine Cunningham (1M, 1F) may be the first play incorporating that staple of modern life, Kimberly the subcontinental call center operator. Heritage, Her-i-tage, & Hair-i-tage by Adrienne Dawes (3F) explores the relationship between hairstyle and cultural identity in a young biracial woman. The Spot by Steven Dietz (2M, 2F, 2M or F) concerns the efforts of a political advisor, TV host and pollster to fabricate the ideal interview guest. Post-its (Notes on a Marriage) by Paul Dooley and Winnie Holzman (1M, 1F) is an updated version of A.R. Gurney's Love Letters, substituting Post-its for Gurney's more traditional missives. Wanda's Visit by Christopher Durang (2M, 2F) illustrates the theme that inviting your high school flame for an overnight stay with you and your wife of thirteen years may have unexpected consequences.

In The Valerie of Now by Peter Hedges (1F) a 12-year-old girl celebrates her menarche. We Cannot Know the Mind of God by Mikhail Horowitz (3-4M, 1-2F) presents an odd guessing game between God and Adam and Eve. The Tarantino Variation by Seth Kramer (3M or 3W) stages a holdup scene replete with references to the director's movies. The Statue of Bolivar by Eric Lane (2W) sets an encounter between a self-possessed eighth-grader and a woman of a certain age near the statue of Simon Bolivar in New York's Central Park. Mars Has Never Been This Close by Warren Leight (5M) places a group of outsiders, by race and sexual preference, at a very proper Connecticut wedding. In Surprise by Mark Harvey Levine (1M, 2F), a psychic young man finds the perfect mate.

How We Talk in South Boston by David Lindsay-Abaire (5M, 2F) serves up a broad parody of Boston accents and bigoted attitudes by portraying the conflicts which ensue when a Boston girl decides to marry a Yankees fan. The Zig-Zag Woman by Steve Martin (3M, 1F) uses the illusions of magic tricks as metaphors for the progress of love. The Way of All Fish by Elaine May (2F), the first part of Power Plays by Elaine May and Alan Arkin, portrays a shift in the balance of power between a female executive and her secretary. There Shall Be No Bottom (A Bad Play for Worse Actors) by Mark O'Donnell (3M, 1F), another backstager, includes roles for an actor who skips ahead in the script, another who regularly mispronounces his lines, a seriously over-aged actress, and a hapless stage manager forced onstage to cover a role. Check, Please by Jonathan Rand (7M, 7F, with some flexibility) portrays a succession of hilariously bad dates. Controlling Interest by Wayne Rawley (4M, 2F) demonstrates what can happen when adult professionals indulge their inner children.

In 2B (or not 2B) (1M, 1F), a woman is courted, not entirely to her displeasure, by a human-sized bee. The speaker in Pops by Edwin Sanchez (1M) reflects on his father's life and his attachment to I Love Lucy. In Forty to Life by Nina Shengold (4-12M, 2 F), a woman confronts a police lineup of all the men she has ever dated, with unexpected results. Shel Silverstein's The Best Daddy (1M, 1F) presents a darkly comic encounter between a girl and her father, whose sense of humor borders on the sadistic. The Flying Wolimskies Return by David Smilow (3M, 1F) recounts the history of a less-than-successful family of circus acrobats. Streak (2M) presents an on-field encounter between a Hispanic third baseman and an American baseball coach.

In Rosa's Eulogy by Richard Strand (1F), a woman delivers a moving eulogy for what she believes to be a stray cat. Chocolate by Frederick Stroppel (1M, 1F) presents encounters with a policeman investigating a murder and a suspect who has some very creative explanations for what seem to be obvious clues. The Earring by Joyce Van Dyke (2M, 2F) portrays cross-cultural misunderstandings between a Russian emigre hotel maid and an American theatrical agent. In The Blueberry Hill Accord by Daryl Watson (2F), the conclusion of a friendship by two teenaged girls takes on the dimensions of the Geneva Convention. Wedding Duet by Lauren Wilson (1M, 1F) presents the first marital spat of a newlywed couple, literally on the threshold of their new life together. In Please Have a Seat and Someone Will Be With You Shortly by Garth Wingfield (1M, 1F), two strangers whose psychiatrists share the same waiting room finally break the ice and share the images they have constructed of each other's life.

Eric Lane and Nina Shengold have edited a dozen contemporary play collections, including Under 30: Plays for a New Generation, The Actor's Book of Scenes from New Plays, and The Actor's Book of Gay and Lesbian Plays. Nina Shengold has also written a novel, screenplays and teleplays as well as numerous theatrical works; further information is available from her website. Eric Lane is the artistic director of Orange Thoughts Productions, a not-for-profit theater and film company in New York City, and an award-winning playwright as well as the writer and producer of two short films.

Laugh LinesLaugh Lines: Short Comic Plays
Edited by Eric Lane and Nina Shengold
Trade paperback. 514 pages
Vintage Books
Publishing date: April 10, 2007
List Price: $17.005
ISBN-10: 0307277135 ISBN-13 978-0307277138