The second bill of one-acts in this year’s Ensemble Studio Theatre Marathon consists of three plays by different writers, all of which work variants on that old entertainment standby, the Eternal Triangle: one man, one woman, and one obstacle to their happy communion. The plays vary as widely in quality as they do in tone, but their overall vitality gives the evening a heartening feel: It’s nice to know there’s still something left for writers to find in the most overworked of all dramatic topics.
The best item of the evening is also its last and its darkest, a somber poison pill at the bottom of what is otherwise largely a fluffy dessert dish: David Mamet’s Home. The title, as you’ve already guessed, is brutally ironic. Following two plays that mainly deal with courtship, Mamet’s focuses on a marriage that has gone rotten. Robert (Victor Slezak) and Claire (Katherine Leask), both busy pursuing careers, seem to have ceased to care for each other almost entirely. When not bickering, in fragmented speeches full of repetition and crisscross, they address each other in those haughty, flatly abstract Mamet sentences that suggest the verbal equivalent of people whacking each other over the head with slats of plywood. (She: “I find unfortunate your formed and perfectly measured expressions.” He: “The problem is not my expressions, the problem is you loathe me.”)
Here the apex of the triangle is the couple’s daughter, offstage and never seen—an obstacle not to the couple’s getting together but to their breaking apart. Clues in the text tell us that little Nora—talk about names with ironic significance—has already been deeply damaged by the tension in this house; she needs both medication and an inhaler. Robert has been offered a new and better-paying job that involves transfer to another city; Claire, steeped in her own work, is just as determined to stay where she is, and keep her daughter with her. Threats, lawsuits, and shrill confrontations flare up before the play’s three brief scenes, running a taut 20-odd minutes, come to what isn’t so much an ending as a sort of disgruntled collapse, leaving the couple in the same miserable state where they started, only with a little more resentment to fuel their future bickering. Curt Dempster’s staging keeps this emotional ping-pong match active but never needlessly busy. Leask, whom I’ve never seen before, gives a striking performance of a woman driven to the edge of shrewishness and hating herself for it; Slezak, cunningly, plays her soft-spoken Mr. Nice Guy of a spouse in ways that constantly suggest the bully hiding beneath his pose of victim.
Home‘s relentless negativity, its almost eager plunge into the hatred that two people can work up for each other, makes a paradoxically exhilarating finish to an evening in which the fun-making of the first two-thirds is rather sad. The characters in the two preceding plays are love-struck sad cases, their situations stretched by the authors beyond probability. David Lindsay-Abaire’s Crazy Eights, which shares the evening’s second half with the Mamet, is the simplest and lightest work of the trio, with only a few verbal flickers and twists of event to show off its author’s odd penchant, familiar since Fuddy Meers, for merging innocent whimsy with a faintly morbid appetite for the grotesque. The unloving couple of Crazy Eights are a first-offense druggie trying to get straight (Rosie Perez) and her helpless doofus of a parole officer (Keith Reddin), whose idea of keeping tabs on her is to break into her apartment to make sure she’s home by curfew. You can imagine neighborhoods in which his behavior would be found less whimsically appealing than Lindsay-Abaire’s view of it.
Once the gigantic initial implausibilities are out of the way, though, the relationship is treated more or less convincingly. And since the three characters, in Brian Mertes’s fluid, easygoing production, are all played by genuinely appealing actors, the short and straightforward piece becomes easy enough to like. Rosie Perez, playing the resentful parolee with an arrowlike directness of purpose and dignified, unforced pathos, brings her character genuine emotional intensity. Keith Reddin, stuck with the more improbable role of a legal bureaucrat out of a vaudeville sketch, gives it dimension with his ready supply of wistful gentility. And Tom Pelphrey invests the third character blocking Reddin’s efforts with a show-stealing, slack-jawed amiability, so charming it takes a while for you to realize that his character is merely another variation on the gay best friend as Fairy Godmother, as predictable as all the other stuff on which Lindsay-Abaire spins his whipped-cream-plus-acid variants.
Cherie Vogelstein’s Love Is Deaf, an hour-long piece that occupies the first half of the bill, is like a string of interlocking triangles, a would-be comedy in which A loves B who loves C who loves D. Every now and then Vogelstein gets off a tolerable joke, but her notion of the vagaries of love—which tends to drive her characters to near-suicidal acts of despair—is even more cartoonishly whimsical than Lindsay-Abaire’s, and she doesn’t have his ability to spin his whimsies away lightly. Nor has director Jamie Richards provided her with a cast skilled at displaying their emotional dementias gracefully, though Grant Shaud and Geneva Carr, as the play’s principal repositories of angst, do tolerably well.