A witch, a decapitated woman, some champagne-soaked revelers, and a disconsolate Jewish family walk into a theater. It sounds like the set-up to a very shaggy joke, but it’s merely the cast list for “Summer Shorts 5, Series B.”
This celebration of new American one-acts now competes with Ensemble Studio Theatre’s annual festival as an event that convinces big names to pen small plays. Past Summer Shorts—including this summer’s Series A—have attracted writers such as Christopher Durang, Neil LaBute, and Terence McNally. In terms of prestige, Series B doesn’t slouch. It includes playwrights José Rivera, Tina Howe, and Keith Reddin, as well as Will Scheffer, best known for his work on the HBO series Big Love.
These scribes don’t have much in common; neither do their plays, though three of the four pieces do discuss infidelity. Only Howe’s Some Women in Their Thirties Simply Start to Fall and Reddin’s Clap Your Hands actually seem crafted as one-acts. Howe’s enjoyably loopy love story concerns a picture book writer who literally loses her head in front of Citarella. Reddin’s more constrained comedy features a New Year’s Eve quartet with a distaste for Auld Lang Syne. Tensions rise as champagne flutes empty, but the play lacks fizz.
As for the longer pieces, Rivera’s Lessons From an Unaccustomed Bride, which pits a naïve fiancée against her former nursemaid, ends just when it might become most interesting. And Scheffer’s The Green Book tries to stuff a meat locker of a play into a single sausage casing, with a plot concerning senility, marine mammals, gay marriage, two generations of family trauma, and world-historical tragedy besides. When Jodie Markell, as a sedative-addicted sister, flings the remarkable putdown, “She thinks she’s such hot shit just because she survived Auschwitz,” you can almost hear the limitations of the form straining to contain it. There’s a lot a playwright can accomplish in half an hour, but it seems only polite to allow the Holocaust a full-length.