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Summer Shorts, Series B

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - August 6, 2017

John Garrett Greer and
KeiLyn Durrel Jones
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Would you risk your job to champion a controversial stance on behalf of someone you like and respect but don't fully agree with? Would you toss away a friendship for the sake of "honesty"? Could you be "bought" if the payment were high enough to make it well worth your while? Just a few ethical questions to ponder from the three writers who have contributed to the well-acted and thought-provoking plays in Summer Shorts, Series B, the second half of the festival of short works at 59E59 Theaters.

The first piece, A Woman, written by Chris Cragin-Day, takes place in the office of Pastor Cliff (Mark Boyett), a newly-appointed Presbyterian church minister. He is sitting with Kim (Jennifer Ikeda), a member of his congregation and an old friend who was instrumental in his hiring. Now she wants him to put forth a woman to be named as a church elder, something that the church does not allow.

This is weighty subject matter for a short play to carry without collapsing into religious polemic, and Cragin-Day does not completely sidestep that problem. Yet, thanks to the excellent performances under Kel Haney's direction, the back-and-forth is never less than compelling to watch. Kim is well-educated and well-spoken, a college professor and a feminist who also has deeply-rooted religious ties to the church. Her goals are long-range; she knows that the appointment of a woman is likely to be rejected up the line, but she wants Cliff to help her to lead the way. For his part, Cliff at first falls into the condescending role we might expect, leaning on church doctrine and some ingrained sexism rather than his own thinking to guide him. But the play contains a few surprises, and the outcome stems naturally from the quality of the dialog and the pair's interactions as Cliff considers his own future as a pastor, including weighing the possibility that he risks losing his position should he stick his neck out.

The second work is far more lightweight, but in its own comic way, it, too, raises an ethical issue. This one takes a look at the white lies expected of friends who are supposed to both gush and fork out lots of money to help one another celebrate their "perfect" weddings. The play, Wedding Bash, by Los Angeles-based writers and performers Lindsey Kraft and Andrew Leeds, takes place in the home of a newlywed couple (Donovan Mitchell and Rachel Napoleon). They are entertaining two of their friends, Alan (Andy Powers) and Edi (Georgia Ximenes Lifsher), who are expected to continue the requisite ooh-ing and ahh-ing. Things fall apart quickly when Alan decides to be "honest" about the couple's "selfishness," and the evening deteriorates into demands for refunds. It's all basically a silly sketch comedy, but the dialog and performances make for a fun addition to the evening, under the direction of J. J. Kandel, who also serves as president and producing artistic director of Throughline Artists, the company behind the festival.

The final entry in the triad is by Neil LaBute, a regular contributor to the short-form program and a master of the confrontational. Here he brings together two tennis pros who are about to go head-to-head in the semifinals at the French Open. At first, it appears that top-seeded Oliver (John Garrett Greer) has invited his opponent Stan (KeiLyn Durrel Jones) for a meet-up so that he can engage his competitor in a pre-game psych-out chat. Predictably, Oliver brags about his many successes and speaks condescendingly about Stan's less stellar career. For his part, Stan is waiting for Oliver to get to the point of their meeting. After some hemming and hawing, Oliver makes his pitch. He desperately wants to win this tournament in order to break the record for most wins in a major men's tennis event, and he is willing to offer Stan a large pile of cash in exchange for throwing the game. For much of the play, the back-and-forth exchange goes as you might expect. But at the very end, LaBute throws in a twist that leaves you wondering who has just psyched out whom. It's nicely done, and the two actors, directed by the playwright, make you feel like you are watching a metaphorical game of tennis, as the two serve, volley, and seek the advantage.

All in all, the collection of short works that make up this season's Summer Shorts festival, which continues on a rotating schedule, are among the strongest in recent years. In particular, LaBute's entry in "Series B" and Acolyte, Graham Moore's philosophy-grounded examination of infidelity in "Series A," serve as sturdy anchors.

Summer Shorts, Series B
Through September 2
59E59 Theater B, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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