July didn’t quite chart as New York’s most scorching month ever. A mere 10th of a degree kept it from besting the 1999 record. But it was, in the words of theater’s acclaimed climatologist Cole Porter, “too, too, too darn hot.”
The effects of such excessive warmth seem evidenced in “Summer Shorts 4,” an evening of one-acts staged at 59E59 Theaters. Each includes an unusual attempt at cooling off. In the first piece, a woman douses a talky chap with a bucket of water. In the second, a father pours a bottle of white wine over his son’s head. In the next, a married couple adopts a penguin and enjoys an August snowstorm. And perhaps the coldest, though it involves nary an ice cube or fan, is Neil LaBute’s Romance. None of the plays is spectacular, but as 59E59 provides generous air conditioning, there are worse ways to spend a midsummer’s night.
The evening opens with Deb Margolin’s The Expenses of Rain, in which a man (Iyaba Ibo Mandingo) wearing a very peculiar suit (two pairs of pants, two shirts, a tie), stands in front of a grocery store and prays for a thunderstorm. That’s been a popular desire over the past several weeks, though few of us have expressed it with quite so many whimsical asides. If Margolin’s brief piece doesn’t quite constitute a one-act, then Timothy Mason’s An Actor Prepares seems excerpted from a longer work. A recitation of names, relationships, and career highlights occupies much of the playing time; the rehearsal of a scene from Coriolanus all but consumes the rest. In the interstices, we witness a tiff between an alcoholic older thespian (Mark Elliot Wilson) and his son (James Leighton), an up-and-coming actor who tends to him and receives a splatter of chardonnay for his trouble. Insult to injury: The wine wasn’t even chilled.
“Someone is always getting rained on somewhere,” says husband Hap in Roger Hedden’s mild Play With the Penguin. Bored with his clement life and weather, Hap (Alex Manette) decides to introduce his own particular cold front by bringing home a penguin (Josh Helman). Of course, the penguin insists he’s actually a cellist, and, when not eating krill dumplings, he introduces Hap and his wife, Joy, to the wonders of string instruments. Perhaps a sea bird or two might have softened LaBute’s Romance, a play about a confrontation between former lovers. When B receives evidence of A’s long-ago infidelity, much invective and violent language ensues. B contemplates murdering A; A calls their breakup a mercy killing. “Romance,” A says, “is dead.” The play is performed twice, and Jeff Binder and Demond Green alternate in the roles of A and B—LaBute insists in a program note that the scene undergoes “many and subtle and bold changes when played by different actors.” It doesn’t really. But those keen on LaBute’s misanthropy can gorge on a double scoop.
If this nastiness leaves you longing for a less barbed treat, you might find it not in the plays themselves, but in the performance of two somewhat incompetent stagehands. They labored over their scene changes, misaligned several flats, seemed baffled as they bracketed doors into place. One stubbed his toe on the edge of a prop bed, then promptly slipped and fell in a puddle of water. He had worked up quite a sweat, so perhaps he enjoyed the plunge.