Whimsy makes a poor substitute for imagination, but willful caprice can be enough to fuel a one-act play if the playwright has the right sense of proportion for the form’s song-like economy. Alas, too many of the one-acts in “Series C” of the Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Marathon 30 amount to brittle, under-realized jokes and what-if sketches. Frank D. Gilroy’s Piscary puts a longtime couple into an implausible impasse for some easy laughs; José Rivera’s tin-eared, icky Flowers struggles to elevate rites of puberty into matter-of-fact urban mythology.
Neither of these plays benefits from strong or shaded direction, but that’s not the problem with Lewis Black’s In Between Songs. Directed with sleek syncopation by Rebecca Nelson, it opens with two pushing-50 businessmen (Jack Gilpin and David Wohl) finishing a joint and spinning a Dylan LP, while the wife of one (Cecilia DeWolf) giggles from the offstage kitchen. What starts as a gimlet-eyed satire of bobo navel-gazing, though, soon devolves into an undisciplined, scattershot comic essay about boomer nostalgia—more a whiff than a riff.
The good news is that the program gets better as it goes along. I’m still not exactly sure what Michael Feingold (chief theater critic for the Voice) is up to with the not-quite-winking Orientalism of Japanoir, but it’s easy to simply enjoy this ambitious and fluent flipbook of interlocking retro film scenes, with a monochrome-clad throng directed fleetly by Richard Hamburger. The effect of these quick-change snippets bouncing off each other, in a kind of pulpy echo chamber, is as suggestive and haunting—if not always as involving—as Feingold seems to have intended. Less successful is a series of framing interviews between a koan-spouting film director (Steven Eng) and a hectoring Western journalist (Leslie Ayvazian).
“Series C” and the marathon reach the finish line in inspired fashion with Jacqueline Reingold’s A Very Very Short Play. It couldn’t have a simpler premise: Boy and girl meet cute in adjacent airplane seats; cream puffs and assorted non sequiturs smooth the mutual seduction. But Reingold’s language is lavish, indirect, beguiling, and somehow entirely convincing, and director Jonathan Bernstein makes an unlikely pair—edgy Adam Dannheisser and bookish Julie Fitzpatrick—seem like a match made, if not in heaven, then in some pretty friendly skies. Thus does “Series C” make a soft landing after a bumpy ride.