Why do one-acts attract such generic playwriting imaginations? The problem stems in part from the contrasting notion of the “full-length” play, a damaging misnomer if ever there was one. Obviously any memorable theatrical experience is “full-length”—the measure being organic wholeness on stage, not hours snoozed in the audience. The short form, however, has tended to live up to its minor (i.e., unfulfilled) status, alluring to the amateur who hasn’t the confidence to write a “real” play and useful to the professional only as a kind of warm-up exercise. Beckett and Pinter, two dramatists who never measured their work by the yard, can be credited with having written the past century’s most original one-acts. Neither, however, differentiated much between a 15-minute piece and a two-hour one. Pinter’s insistence that his extremely brief Ashes to Ashes be produced on its own underscores his noble conviction that there are no small plays, only small playwrights.
It’s hard to imagine two more antithetical approaches to the one-act bill than the Worth Street Theater Company’s “Snapshots 2000,” a crammed program of seven playlets and sketches, and the Sanctuary Theater’s “3,” a cockeyed trio of utterly self-sustaining one-woman monologues. Where “Snapshots” offers a hodgepodge of largely dispensable work, “3” rallies a group of disparate sensibilities around a central female motif. To be fair, the latter production also has the advantage of New York’s most talented theatrical family—Rip Torn directs his daughter Danae in Eugene O’Neill’s Before Breakfast, while son Tony stages Chay Costello’s Pandora’s Box of Sweets, as well as Juliana Francis’s Box, in which he makes a brief but memorable cameo.
Not that “Snapshots” doesn’t have its share of recognizable names. Romulus Linney leads things off with Stars, an elbow-nudging satire of loneliness and sexual duplicity among the Southampton set. Peter Hedges, author of the fine short play Imagining Brad, contributes a pair of “food-related” sketches. Celery concerns the sexually tense date between a man and woman, whose innocent chomping on the bar’s complimentary celery turns into a Freudian-style kick-boxing match between the sexes. The effect is akin to a Saturday Night Live skit with slightly more psychological pop, which also describes The Age of Pie, a send-up of touchy-feely self-help groups that culminates in a slapstick religious ceremony involving a cream pie.
The presence of only one pie (when Hedges’s stage direction calls for seven) is a clue that “Snapshots” director Jeff Cohen has spread his resources a little thin. The real obstacle, however, isn’t the shoestring production values, but the cursory approach of Cohen’s actors. By omitting his own play, Bea’s Legacy, a rambling narrative about two damaged kids of powerful political operators, perhaps he could have devoted more time to helping his cast find depth in the one-act’s shorthand style. This isn’t to suggest that there’s anything profound lurking in the shallow pieties of Mark Novom’s Bagging Groceries, the program’s narcolepsy-inducing “centerpiece” in which four talking heads hose down the audience with their banal spiritual quandaries. But definitely more could have been done with the talents of Derek Lively and Queen Esther, both of whom score points in bouncy (if ultimately unrealized) cartoons by Robert O’Hara.
Danae Torn’s frighteningly vivid performance as the shrewish alcoholic “Mrs.” in O’Neill’s Before Breakfast provides the first of “3” ‘s X rays into the psychic distress of women. As a wife on the verge of a nervous breakdown, she prepares breakfast with all the wearying hostility of someone who knows her best years are behind her. Sweeping the kitchen as though she were clearing a battlefield, she rants to her offstage husband about having to financially support his feeble artistic dreams and even feebler attempts at philandering. What distinguishes Torn’s characterization is the sneaky way she reveals the rejection fueling Mrs.’s recriminations—the nagging loss and disappointment that allows her final catastrophic discovery of her husband’s suicide to vibrate with the pity and terror of a mini Greek tragedy.
Juliana Francis’s Box, a striking portrait of a Ukrainian sex worker in a New York go-go booth, doesn’t pull any punches, and neither does Funda Duyal’s performance as the immigrant who gets paid to make every man’s fantasy come true. Behind a pane of plastic, Anastasia talks via telephone to her clients, quickly sussing out their fetishes. During one of her frequent snack breaks, Tony Torn’s Mop Man drops by to disinfect her stall. Unable to contain her despair at her situation, she breaks into a Russianized version of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”—which is about as creepy an expression of pathos as you’re likely to encounter this side of a porno house.
Suffice it to say that in Pandora’s Box of Sweets, Susan Tierney, dolled up as a fairy princess, manages to place pastries on the points of her crown and still retain her character’s touching if baffling emotional presence. Where else but in a one-act could such daft absurdism penetrate so easily? Future practitioners of the form take heed: All the stale epiphanies and labored gags can’t compare to a woman adorning her head with an éclair.