“I just needed to get all that out of my system,” blurts one of the impossibly loquacious teens in Taylor Mac’s one-act Okay, which uses the girls’ room at a prom to unleash a series of how-we-live-now monologues about the state of post-9/11 America (diagnosis: bleak, dude). The urge to purge—or at least to say one’s piece—may be most artlessly obvious in Mac’s bathroom-sink drama, but it can be pressed into service as a recurring theme in most of Marathon 30’s “Series B” at the Ensemble Studio Theatre.
Lloyd Suh’s Happy Birthday William Abernathy spins the casual racism of an old curmudgeon (Joe Ponazecki) into an unlikely meditation on collective shame and cultural bewilderment, as confessed to a stiff great-grandson (Peter Kim). Dryly directed by Deborah Hedwall, it’s like a shrug that deepens into a thoughtful frown. Ideogram is a politically incorrect one-joke teaser by David Zellnik: For a laugh, dim-bulb stockbroker Jasper (Bryan Fenkart) scrawls some fake Chinese characters on the birthday card of an Asian co-worker (Pun Bandhu), but apparently they’re not only the real deal—they form a beguiling poem. Before long, Jasper is “doodling” unwitting masterpieces with far-reaching global consequences. A smirky riff that skirts becoming a macabre parable, it’s executed with precisely the right deadpan snap under director Abigail Zealey Bess.The pseudo-catharsis of truth-telling may have no more insistent or prolific exponent than Neil LaBute, who with The Great War contributes another virtuosic, brittle acting exercise. Here, the field is an imploding marriage, and the players are a Bacall-ish Laila Robins and a tetchy Grant Shaud. Director Andrew McCarthy keeps the two combatants in uncomfortably close quarters, but no amount of bruising intimacy can elevate LaBute from the schematic.Particularly when set against the sucker punches of LaBute and the logorrhea of Mac, the unforced lyricism of Anne Washburn’s October/November seems especially warm and welcome. It doesn’t hurt that her play breaks the unburdening mold; it’s more about discovery than disgorgement. It dramatizes an oddly inspiring ritual of teenage transference, as prematurely world-weary “Nikkie” (Amelia McClain) stirs the imagination of terminally wide-eyed David (Gio Perez) with clarifying disdain and a kiss or two. There’s nothing programmatic about this sort-of romance; under Ken Rus Schmoll’s loose-limbed direction, it oscillates winningly between surprise and anticipation. In theater as in life, the truth is often better snuck up on than flushed out.