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Book Review: The Best American Short Plays, 2008-2009, Edited by Barbara Parisi

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As you might expect, the central feature of the newly published anthology, The Best American Short Plays, 2008-2009, is its variety. There are longer one-acts and there are those that wouldn’t take up more than 10 minutes, if that. There are comedies and there are dramas. They deal with subjects contemporary and historical, and they treat these subjects sometimes realistically and sometimes surreally. Formally, they run from tour de force monologues for one or more actors to interconnected moments to fully realized scenes with the traditional beginning, middle, and end. Some use the barest of bare bones staging, some call for elaborate production values — music, projections, scenery, and costumes. There is something here for everyone, something to like, something to dislike: no matter the aesthetic sensibility, something to love, something to detest.

The book begins with a short foreword by one of the playwrights, David Ives (he of the well known evening of one-acts All in the Timing) and an introduction by the editor, Barbara Parisi. Paradoxically Ives calls attention to the visceral nature of the one-act play with a cerebral attempt at definition of its dynamic emotional impact. It is a form that must create an emotional “storm” in the audience. Parisi uses her introduction to give each of the 16 playwrights included in the anthology an opportunity to “express the theme, plot, and inspiration for their one-act plays.” While some of their thoughts are useful for understanding at least what they thought they were doing, none of the comments are really developed at any length. They are at best suggestive if a reader is impressed by an author’s intentions.

So for example, Emily Conbere says of her play Slapped Actress, in which theoretically a gaggle of actors scattered through the audience rise up to join with the actors on stage in asserting that “we,” the people, are the theater: “I would like any audience who sees this play to feel completely, physically and emotionally, inspired to be part of this temporary theater company. The play ideally ends in a riot that scares some, captures some, and embraces some.” One supposes she has something in mind like the famous effect created in Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty. Still, one has to wonder when one reads the play whether any audience can get so viscerally caught up in the aesthetic question of the relation between theater and truth that they will rise up in even temporary revolution.

All that Billy Aronson has to say about his fine comedy Little Duck is that its main theme is “collaboration.” After fewer than a hundred words he concludes, “I wanted to see a bunch of people on stage trying to work together while imposing their weird sexual energies on one another.” Aronson, it would seem, believes that the work should speak for itself. Little Duck, which deals with the creation of a new children’s television show, would seem to be as much a satiric look at what passes for the creative process as individual members of the team scheme to get their ideas into the final product. The imposition of sexual energies is either a metaphor for the imposition of creative ideas, or the imposition of creative ideas is a metaphor for the imposition of sexual energies. Pay your money, take your choice: either way Aronson has written a very funny play.

Other highlights in the volume include David Ives’ comic look at theology in Saint Francis Preaches to the Birds in which two New York style vultures are interrupted in their feasting on the corpse of the Saint when it appears he is not quite dead. Neil LaBute’s A Second of Pleasure depicts the end of an illicit affair at the last minute before the couple is to leave for a weekend. Lewis Gardner’s Pete and Joe at the Dew Drop Inn is an amusing series of scenes in which two friends look at life from the “guy’s” point of view. James Armstrong’s The True Author of the Plays Formerly Attributed to Mister William Shakespeare Revealed to the World for the First Time by Miss Delia Bacon is set in the 19th century and takes the form of a lecture in which Miss Bacon, the speaker, very quickly reveals her own mental problems. III by Joe Salvatore looks at the historical relationship between writer Glenway Wescott, publisher Monroe Wheeler, and photographer George Platt Lynes using material from their letters and other publications.

Less successful from this reader’s point of view were some of the more poetical fantasies and the longer monologues. Meg Miroshnik’s A Portrait of the Woman as a Young Artist and Maria Del Collins’ The Lovers and Others of Eugene O’Neill are both so densely loaded with ore they seem to me to require more intense study than a one-act is likely to get from its audience. Murray Shisgal’s Naked Old Man, in which the aged author has a monologue/conversation with three of his deceased friends is at the least somewhat self-indulgent. Decades Apart: Reflections of Three Gay Men by Rick Pulos would benefit from some greater interaction between the characters. Monologues, I find, rarely generate the same kind of dramatic tension as character interaction.

With one-act play festivals of one kind or another littering the theatrical landscape all over the world, the genre, once a kind of dramatic footnote, has become more and more popular. Perhaps one-acts multiply because playwrights find they don’t necessarily take years in development. Perhaps they are everywhere because theater companies find them economical to produce on limited budgets. Perhaps they are popular because they appeal to the notorious short attention spans of modern audiences. Whatever the reason, they are here in numbers and they are here to stay. At their best, like most of those in this anthology, they are gems as finely wrought as a Keats Ode or a Hemingway short story; at their worst… well, readers of this volume won’t really have to worry about that.

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