Fortune cookies are paragons of one-act dramatic construction: compact, self-contained, with a pleasing shape and a satisfying crunch. They end with a twist, offering tiny language lessons and kitschy proverbs. Fortune cookies never overstay their welcome or overreach their grasp.
The first installment of EST’s 2011 one-act marathon got me thinking about these complex confections, and not just because Qui Nguyen’s Bike Wreck—one of the evening’s five playlets—includes a scene where a fortune cookie is consumed with manic relish. Nope, it was because all the pieces featured platitudes masquerading as life lessons—too much fortune and not enough cookie. The bill’s playwrights could have learned something from the humble dessert’s other virtues: brevity, modesty, surprise.
With his contrived Bike Wreck, Nguyen proposes a novel strategy to combat creeping gentrification: mugging. His two deliverymen heroes—one slings Chinese food, the other totes documents—like to bitch about how much Alphabet City has changed (the ship’s sailed on that one). Tired of being patronized by the overprivileged jerks they serve—one cellphone-happy meathead in particular—the duo take up street crime with predictably violent results. In an extremely BS-y coincidence, the yappy yuppy happens to be their first victim.
Ah, college! Remember those carefree evenings performing interpretive dances in abandoned buildings with your imaginary friend? In Billy Aronson’s cloying In the Middle of the Night, an earnest young man with mental problems cavorts with his sexy female delusion before his worried parents cart him home. It’s hard to know whether we’re expected to sympathize with his dilemma—rejoining reality versus continuing with the cutesy-wootsy roleplaying—or hope someone writes an effective prescription.
If you’re marrying a hillbilly, make sure he doesn’t hoodwink you on the homesteading plans. Thus the moral of Romulus Linney’s chicken-fried chestnut Tennessee, in which a family evening on the farm is interrupted by the arrival of a confused widow with a cowbell. Decades before, she’d abandoned that selfsame farm with her new husband, lighting out for her dreamed-of spiritual home—the titular state. Turns out her sneaky hubby drove around in circles before plunking her down only a few miles away. Finally, she wises up, tramps back, catches a nasty case of the monologues, and relives it all. Alas, the Mason-Dixon Masha never got her Moscow.
In Ben Rosenthal’s pretentious, hyper-verbose Ten High—his characters sound like GRE vocabulary crammers—a pair of philosophical hitmen share a barroom with a philandering philosopher and his aggrieved wife. While the dallying academic squirms, the hoodlums plot a version of Russian roulette involving a boutique toxin, a glass of liquor, and chance. Time for some goombah existentialism!
J. Holtham’s occasionally winsome though ultimately belabored School Night follows two teenage misfits—Ammon, the only black kid in school, and Lucy, a spunky little she-punk—as they flirt and flinch their way haltingly into the sack. Holtham’s overwrought metaphors eventually overwhelm credulity: digging a pet kitty’s grave leads, incongruously, to a painfully literal digging for family roots. “I want to belong,” mutters Ammon as he excavates.
As the cookie might put it: “Climb over clichés as you scale the peaks of dramatic composition.”