Think of an evening of one-acts as a tasting menu at a trendy eatery. At Ensemble Studio Theatre’s “Marathon 2001, Series A” (running through May 20), you can enjoy mainly desserts—especially if your appetite for chocolate runs to dark and bitter.
The most satisfying of the four tidbits, Billy Aronson’s Night Rules, takes its on-target premise to the horizon of absurdity; paradoxically, it arrives there with both inevitability and surprise. In Andrea and Ken’s living room, Rob and Becky chat with their hosts while the children of both couples play together offstage. Andrea and Ken, righteous parents, hammer at Becky with near religious fervor about the dangers of letting their daughter sleep in their bed, while Rob timidly says amen to their preaching. As Ken continues the debate with Becky, their mates begin furiously humping each other a few feet away. In a breathless rush of events, there are lame excuses, ultimatums, breakups, and bickering over the minute details of custody arrangements. The denouement is a wicked reversal of positions on the iron rules about who sleeps in whose bed, and the logic is priceless.
Aronson has nailed these parental holy wars and couples’ skirmishes with a keenly observant eye. As directed by Jamie Richards with crackling timing, the foursome turn in hilarious performances, especially Joe Urla as the rigid Ken, trembling with fanaticism, and Katherine Leask as the beaten-down-but-not-out Becky.
Cherie Vogelstein’s Brown—also directed by Richards with breakneck pace and satiric edge—turns out to be pretty black. In a nightmare job interview for a classy investment bank, young Peter (Zach Shaffer) is forced by the glossy senior partner (Sam Freed), vicious underling Maurie (Grant Shaud), and coquettish exec Mary (Susan Greenhill) to make a hypothetical—and unthinkable—decision. The cast shines, Shaffer especially as the uptight job seeker sweating through his Kafkaesque trial. Laughs abound, though this extended joke ends with an anticipated punch line. And unlike Night Rules, the play operates on a contrived rather than organic premise.
So brief it’s a mere tickle of a play, David Ives’s Arabian Nights, directed by Jason McConnell Buzas, displays the playwright’s trademark mischief with language. Here, a yenta (Anne O’Sullivan)—dolled up in enough gauze and spangles for a harem of chorus girls—acts as an “interpreter” between a young American businessman (Christopher Duva) and a shop girl (Melinda Page Hamilton) at an Arabian bazaar. The joke is that both are speaking English, and the translator spouts schmaltzy versions of what they are feeling but not saying. The piece is a trifle, but it coaxes smiles.
The only serious item on this menu is Tom Coash’s Ukimwi, which also dramatizes an encounter between a young American businessman (in Cairo) and a local—in this case, a Kenyan hooker. As she aggressively but unsuccessfully hustles him—flirting, guilt tripping, spitting abuse—the air snaps with sexual and political tensions. Men are pigs, Americans are bearers of AIDS. Eliza Beckwith directs tautly, and Nicole Leach rivets as the spicy, spiky, and scary whore. The encounter has power, even with a little preachiness leaking into the drama. Although the “shocker” ending doesn’t really shock, still, it gets to you.
In Eli’s Comin’—also an assemblage of bits—the songs of the late singer-songwriter Laura Nyro are fused into one powerhouse performance. In the ’60s and ’70s, Nyro pioneered her own synthesis of folk, jazz, gospel, and r&b, in songs that crooned and purred and whooped. An early embracer of women’s lib, she wrote visceral, playful, and triumphant lyrics that influenced a generation of songwriters, from Joni Mitchell to Suzanne Vega.
Eli’s Comin’, created by Bruce Buschel and Diane Paulus, weaves a quasi-narrative from 20 of Nyro’s compositions, including hits like “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Wedding Bell Blues.” The four female singers—Judy Kuhn, Mandy Gonzalez, Anika Noni Rose, and Ronnell Bey—are each distinctive and all terrific. They are assigned roles—the Young Girl, the Mother, etc.—but these are fuzzy and unhelpful. Yet director Paulus fires up drama within and across numbers as the singers’ sounds harmonize and oppose each other. Backed by an energetic and nuanced six-piece jazz band, the varying timbres and ranges of the voices come together for knockout effects, thanks to Diedre Murray’s dynamic arrangements. At their best, the songs thrill as music and work as theater.
In one of the most affecting sequences, Paulus forges a stirring story by linking three songs—”Poverty Train,” “Been on a Train,” and “Stoney End”—in which the women act out the throes of drug addiction, detox, and recovery. Reeling from ecstasy to anguish and back to level ground, they exhort and love each other.
There’s no man in this scene, but in some of the sexier numbers—and some are very hot—Wilson Jermaine Heredia, in black leather pants and vest, slinks around and fondles the ladies as they growl out their desires. Really, though, he’s unnecessary. Whether drinking all night, celebrating the morning, or crying the blues, these women fill up the stage all by themselves.