Game, set, and playwriting match to David Auburn. In Series A of “Marathon 2008,” Ensemble Studio Theatre’s 30th annual festival of one-acts, Auburn’s tennis piece, An Upset, all but wipes the court with his competition: Willie Reale, Quincy Long, Michael John Garcés, and Amy Herzog. Simple, smart, and disproportionately funny, his script features two champs—an old pro (Darren Goldstein) and a young comer (Matt Lauria)—who meet in the locker room after tournaments.
Auburn, the author of 2001’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Proof and not much since, again proves a master of delineating character through dialogue. Goldstein’s profanity-laden lines (he offers “Fuck you” by way of hello) show a man using bluster to mask despair; Lauria, over the course of several scenes, transforms from a humble youth to a jaded jerk. Under Harris Yulin’s direction, Goldstein, a familiar and very welcome face Off-Broadway, slams his sentences toward his opponent. Lauria, a stage newcomer, volleys them back adeptly. Unusually for tennis, both men come up winners, as does Auburn. That latter victor has been so absent from the stage, and his past plays have included such marvelous females characters, that one only regrets he didn’t write a longer piece, perhaps involving mixed doubles.
Male-female relationships—many of them romantic—figure in the rest of Series A’s one-acts. Reale’s rather twee A Little Soul-Searching concerns evolved beings dawdling at an interplanetary way station, waiting for reincarnation. (It’s primarily an excuse for some cutesy songs, one discussing pastry.) Long’s wordless Wedding Pictures includes music, courtesy of a live violinist, but no lyrics: This nuptial comedy is entirely mimed. Garcés’s tedious Tostitos, a play about posturing teenagers, has too many words, several of them quite as blue as those that Goldstein utters. (Yet, where art stumbles, product placement triumphs: The piece renders one inexplicably hungry for the titular chips.) Recent Yale Drama grad Herzog, making her New York debut, offers a spiky season’s greetings with Christmas Present. The play, starring the excellent Julie Fitzpatrick, depicts an awkward morning after between a nice Jewish boy and the acerbic Christian girl who may have just given him HPV, a gift that makes coal in one’s stocking seem thoughtful by comparison. Happily, Herzog reveals herself as a gifted writer—by next Christmas, perhaps we’ll have had a few more of her plays to unwrap.