Probably no theatrical form has had a longer or hardier life than the one-act. Even if you don't count the ancient Greek tragedies as one-acts that were assembled into triple bills, their performance was always followed by one-act satyr plays burlesquing the tragic material, only one-and-a-half of which, unfortunately, survive. The Elizabethan theater and Renaissance opera both began with two- or three-character "interludes" to sweeten the tragic deal. London's 18th-century playhouses improved on the ancient Greeks, and enhanced their box offices, by tacking "afterpieces," which could be sentimental or musical as well as farcical, onto their already long full-evening plays; 19th-century theater managers topped them by adding "curtain-raisers" before the main piece as well as finishing up with a farce. This went on, according to Bernard Shaw, "until it dawned on the managers that no living person had ever been known to wait for the farce, and accordingly it was dropped." The early 20th-century's mainstream writers, including Shaw himself, churned out one-acts for stars who wanted to make quick money on the vaudeville or music-hall circuits. Most of the century's major dramatists, from the earliest days of the experimental or "little theater" movement to the beginnings of our own off-off Broadway, began with one-acts: Chekhov, Schnitzler, Wedekind, Strindberg, Pirandello, O'Neill, Brecht, Lorca, Wilder, Williams, Miller, Albee, Genet, Ionesco, Beckett, Pinter, and so on down to Lanford Wilson, John Guare, Adrienne Kennedy, David Mamet, and countless other writers still alive and productive. Some enterprising soul should probably start a cocktail-hour theater devoted to producing a repertoire of classic one-acts.
For 28 summers, Ensemble Studio Theatre has been producing an annual one-act "marathon"12 to 18 one-acts, on three or four bills that play in alternating repertoryin its creaky city-owned loft building on West 52nd Street, a once desolate area, framed by rusting railyards, that's now about to be transformed by looming upscale apartment towers. But the creaky flight of stairs that takes you up to EST's minuscule lobby, where the chance of fresh air is roughly equal to the likelihood of your stepping on the artistic director's irrepressibly friendly dog, hasn't changed. What has changed, at least marginally and (let's hope) temporarily, is the excitement that used to attend the Marathon's variegated bills, the joy of wondering which wacky way of treating a small-scale encounter an enterprising playwright might dream up next. From previous marathons, I remember several Mamet gems, and such lesser delights as Stuart Spencer's In the Western Garden, as well as giddy dessert treats like the first version of Chris Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius, or Paul Rudnick's Raving and Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach. I went to the first two programs of Marathon 2006 knowing that, as always, there would be some good directing and some first-rate acting, and wondering what enchantments might tumble out of this year's grab bag.
Well, maybe the enchantment is on Program C. A and B have their meritsa new Mamet item, Bone China, is a somber highlightbut the overall tenor of the two evenings is lackluster. It's not for lack of trying on the playwrights' part: Program A's second half consists of a tender, spooky piece by David Ives exploring familiar material in an ingeniously disturbing way, and a tiny, equally tender sketch by Anton Dudley. But Dudley's Davy and Stu, neatly acted, and directed by Jordan Young with graceful understatement, has a jumpy inconclusiveness, while Ives's The Other Woman gets mishandled in Walter Bobbie's production. The two actors, who play a passionately devoted husband and wife, hardly seem to connect with each other. Ives's educated phrases stumble unconvincingly off Scott Cohen's tongue, while Ruthie Henshall's British-accented rat-a-tat delivery never seems to come from the person he's describing. A better-matched pair, more at ease with the material, might have made this something juicy.
The first half of Program A feels more conventional, ironically, because both of its plays are trying so hard to be hip. The lesser offendermuch too decent and pleasant, really, to be stigmatized as an offenderis Amy Fox's Breakfast and Bed, a morning-after colloquy between a club gal who's overslept after being picked up and a maturer, more motherly woman than the lesbian date who did the picking. The explanation's visible early on, but Fox, seemingly more nervous about her material than the audience, protracts it as if every new turn were an ultra-shocking surprise. She doesn't commit any false moves, though, and the two appealing actresses, Julie E. Fitzpatrick and Karen Young, make an enjoyable if slow-paced time of it under Abigail Zealy-Bess's resolutely unforced direction. Watching the lights and shadows of feelings that flicker across Young's face reminds you that one principal pleasure of this type of unlikely-encounter play is seeing a skilled actor get thoroughly immersed in some improbable character.
It's Fox's ill luck that her play is tainted by coming after the bill's opener, Lloyd Suh's Not All Korean Girls Can Fly, a lame lump of would-be satire, or something, that suggests an extremely pedantic ethnic-studies lecturer trying to parody Joe Orton. Though it makes little sense, Suh's script probably isn't as bad as RJ Tolan's dreadful productionall screaming and ineptitudemakes it seem. That Tolan is the artistic director of Youngblood, EST's emerging-playwrights group, makes the shrill relentlessness even more dismaying: All the vampire musicals on Broadway couldn't drain young blood away from the theater faster than this. One can't blame the actors: Both Cindy Cheung and Jonathan Tindle, who do the bulk of the screaming as, respectively, a frantic Korean American mother and a surgery-crazed doctor, give evidence in the few quiet moments Tolan allows them of the ability to do better in saner directorial hands.
Program B, overall, fares better. At least, it takes more formal risks, albeit with uneven success, and it offers more genuine liveliness. Its opener, Julia Cho's 100 Most Beautiful Names of Todd, is a silly, scrappy piece, repeating motifs from her full-length BFE, seen at Playwrights Horizons last year. But it's also a fun listen, with few false steps in its writing. A youngish widow fixates on the loss of her husband, while her preteen daughter, equally at a loss, finds solace in quasi-romance with an African exchange studentin whose native language, to give you some sense of Cho's fondness for comically oddball facts, the movie Carrie is known as Queen of Blood Dancing. Though adding up to little, its bright writing, abetted in Jamie Richards's production by endearing performances from Allison Bartlett, William Jackson Harper, and Diana Ruppe, shows off another quality good one-acts have: hope for the playwright's future.
Next comes Mamet's Bone China, proffering a lovely, clean chill that cuts through the lingering sweetness of Cho's work like a perfectly measured dash of vinegar. An encounter between two riven souls with other people's problems on their minds, it lures you into its quick surprise reversal with unerring precision. EST artistic director Curt Dempster's staging wisely gives his two top-of-the-line performers, Marcia Jean Kurtz and Victor Slezak, the leeway to spring Mamet's trap with their own immaculate timing.
Before the break comes Program B's comparative dud, Will Eno's Intermission, in which two couples chat between acts of a play. Eno knows how to throw in a good laugh line here and there, but what he's up to overall is both predictable and windily pretentious. If audiences really spouted such idiocy at intermissions, house managers would have more to worry about than cell phones going off. Michael Sexton's production sugars this dry puff pastry with four lovable actors: Brian Murray, Jane Houdyshell, JJ Kandel, and Autumn Dornfeld, with Murray's crotchets and Houdyshell's acerbity pretty much saving the day.
Lovability comes into play again with James Ryan's On the Sporadic, which occupies all of Program B's second half. A noisy comedy as inchoate and pointless as its haughty title, Ryan's would-be comedy follows the by now all too familiar pattern of a square's encounter with an increasingly menacing weirdo. Ryan tries to alter the pattern by throwing in a third character who neutralizes the menace with philosophic sweetness, but since almost nothing in his script is backed by any believable motive, no twist can give much surprise. What does surprise is the acting, under Charles Richter's direction. Both Ean Sheehy as the jittery city guy and Jordan Gelber as his outrageous nemesis (a Native American with a torrential cascade of problems) play gleefully and precisely up to the bearable edge of their characters; respective crazinesses. Good feeling, rather than playwriting, is what's on view. But that too, you might say, is a principal excuse for the one-act as a form.
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