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Ensemble Studio Theatre
Marathon 2003 Series A

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Though it's something playwrights can sometimes forget all too easily, it is often the most simple and straightforward situations and presentations that make for the most memorable theatre. In the midst of shows that make more extravagant use of sets, language, plot, and concept, one tiny jewel of a play shines particularly brightly in the first series of Ensemble Studio Theatre's newest Marathon of one-act plays.

Garry Williams's A Blooming of Ivy is an unassuming, heartfelt exploration of friendship and love between two people who have been cut off from it for a while. George (James Rebhorn) and Ivy (Phyllis Somerville), both well past middle age, have been friends since childhood, and are just now discovering that something more may be possible. (He was widowed a year ago and has been lost at sea emotionally, while her husband died twenty years earlier, and she was forced to keep the farm on in his stead.)

Director Richmond Hoxie and Williams build the relationship between the two smoothly, realizing a lifetime of unrequited courtship in a very short amount of time. The rapport between Rebhorn and Somerville makes this even easier, as their chemistry is so strong that the potently emotional show becomes one of the warmest and most honest love stories to show up on New York's stages recently.

No the other plays in this Marathon segment matches A Blooming of Ivy's richness, though two - Billy Aronson's Of Two Minds and Romulus Linney's Coda - fill out their brief running times with enough to keep you guessing, keep you questioning, and keep you interested. Of Two Minds is a story of the intertwining relationships of five people, all of whom have plenty of good reasons for keeping their associations with everyone else secret, and is anchored by a fine performance from Geneva Carr and energetic direction from Jamie Richards.

Coda (appropriately the last show of the evening) finds two men and two women facing the unknown at the end of their lives, examining the emotions and actions that brought them there. Directed in an abstract, yet appropriate, fashion by Julie Boyd, Coda provides little judgment and less interpretation - are the people in heaven or hell, or does it even matter? Helen Coxe's performance as a monster built in the name of science is one of the evening's most effective.

Less intriguing are the evening's other two plays. Deborah Goldberg's The Honey Makers focuses on English-Pakistani relations at the beginning of the 1990s. It suffers from trying to do too a bit too much at once, with ageism and racism fighting for control as the play's dominant theme (though luckily Jake Myers is on hand as a skinhead building a bridge between the worlds). Unsurprisingly, there's a big fight scene and even a garden of angry bees - director Tom Rowan does what he can, but he and Goldberg could accomplish more by doing a bit less.

The first play of the evening, Memento Mori, is also the weakest. Susan Kim's Twilight Zone-like tale of two women (Cecila de Wolf and Amy Staats) meeting in a restaurant on the last day of the world tries to build tension without giving away much in the way of plot, but doesn't provide performances or a situation compelling enough to fill the void of story left behind. de Wolf and Staats do work that feels strained and broad, comic and serious in the wrong places, with relationships never developed clearly. Abigail Zealey Bess's direction adds little to the mix - Memento Mori has very little to say, and says it, though it might benefit from a longer, more detailed treatment.

Great plays, of course, can be of any length, as EST's Marathon continually reminds us. And if only one such play is in evidence this time around, that's enough - A Blooming of Ivy is as good as it gets, and that's pretty great.


Ensemble Studio Theatre
Marathon 2003 - Series A
Through May 29
Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 West 52nd Street
Tickets: SmartTix at 212.868.4444

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