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Summer Shorts, Series A

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - July 30, 2017

Orlagh Cassidy and Brontë England-Nelson
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Attending an evening of short plays is rather like opening Forrest Gump's famous box of chocolate; you never know what you're going to get. In the case of the first part of this year's festival of such short works opening today at 59E59 Theaters under the collective title Summer Shorts, Series A, what you will get from the box is a trio of plays, two of which are quite engrossing, with a third that serves more as a featherweight palate cleanser between the others.

The opening play is Melissa Ross's Jack, a piece that earns both our laughter and our tears as a divorced couple, Maggie and George, meet up outside a dog run. They have agreed this is where they will spread the ashes of their recently-euthanized dog Jack, who represents the last bit of business the 30-something childless pair will do together before moving on with their separate lives. When they first arrive, the air is thick with the tension between them, but the dialog is snappy and quite funny as they try, mostly unsuccessfully, to avoid pushing each other's buttons.

Yet when the sniping and sarcasm die down, they begin to talk more honestly about their feelings, allowing Jack to symbolize their shared sadness, which is clearly not just about the 18-year-old deceased dog. Here the play takes an emotionally honest turn that will surely touch the heart of anyone who has gone through a painful breakup or, for that matter, has lost a beloved pet. Jack is beautifully acted by Claire Karpen as Maggie and, at the performance I attended, Aaron Roman Weiner taking on the role of George. Mimi O'Donnell, who is the artistic director for the Labyrinth Theater Company, does the directing honors for this bittersweet gem.

Following Jack is a much slighter work called Playing God by Alan Zweibel, who has written for "Saturday Night Live" and other television comedy shows. Playing God does seem like a piece of sketch comedy as it presents the story of a crotchety old God (Bill Buell) who takes umbrage at a self-important obstetrician, Dr. Fisher (Dana Watkins). The doctor has pressured one of his patients into allowing him to induce her labor early so that he can go on a skiing trip. God finds this to be terribly arrogant, and so He sets out to punish Fisher by challenging him to a possibly life-altering game of squash. Directed by Maria Mileaf, this play is more chuckle-engendering than memorable, although in the role of God's snarky assistant, Welker White does manage to ratchet up the level of amusement.

The biggest surprise is reserved for the final work in the 90-minute evening. It's a play called Acolyte, written by novelist and screenwriter Graham Moore. A gifted wordsmith who won an Academy Award for his screenplay of "The Imitation Game," Moore has managed to create a fascinating piece about—believe it or not—Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy, with the renowned purveyor of "enlightened selfishness," Ayn Rand, at its center.

The play deals with Rand's use of unemotional logic and philosophic argument to arrange for an affair with Nathaniel Branden, with the consent of Branden's wife Barbara and Rand's husband Frank O'Connor (not the famous writer, in case you were wondering.) All four characters are based on real people of the same names, and the play itself contains some elements that may well remind you of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. This is a remarkably rich work that reveals just how much you can do within a time slot of some 30 minutes. High marks to the playwright, the director Alexander Dinelaris, and the excellent cast: Orlagh Cassidy as Ayn Rand; Ted Koch as her befuddled and besotted husband; Sam Lilja as Nathaniel; and Brontë England-Nelson as Barbara.

On a final note, the evening kicks off with a filmed promo for "Stage To Screen," a project by the Summer Shorts production company Throughline Artists. It seems like an interesting initiative, but it did make me feel as though I had arrived early for a showing at a movie house and had to sit through those "first look" and advertising spots. Hope this isn't the start of a trend at the theater.

Summer Shorts, Series A
Through September 1
59E59 Theater B, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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