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Book Review: The Best American Short Plays 2009-2010, Edited by Barbara Parisi

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Last year’s edition of The Best American Short Plays, 2008-2009 was impressive because of both the quality and the variety of the works selected. It included work by both major playwrights and some lesser known voices. Some of the plays were experimental, some were more traditional. There were serious dramatic pieces; there were comedies. It was possible to disagree with some of her selections, but certainly Barbara Parisi, the editor, had a clear critical point of view and had made her choices in the light of that aesthetic.

I’m not so sure about her criteria for her choices in the 2009-2010 edition. In her introduction, she talks about her focus on subtext which she defines as “the unspoken thoughts and motives of characters,” and its importance in the short play. Now while on some level it could be argued that there is no communication without subtext, it would seem that the there are four essential criteria that ought to be considered as primary for best American short play of ’09-’10. They should be American. They should be short. They should fit into the time period. They should be the best. I’m not quite sure that plays that focus on the importance of subtext automatically are the only plays that fit those criteria. Moreover I wonder about whether some of her choices fit those other criteria.

Adam Rapp’s Red Light Winter, the very first play in the anthology, offers a good example of the problem. What exactly constitutes short? At 103 pages with stage directions for significant scenic moments without actual dialogue, the play doesn’t seem to qualify for the short play category. Since it was first produced by Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2005 it doesn’t seem to fit the 2009-2010 category either. It does have a 2010 copyright, but there are other plays in the volume that have an earlier copyright.

It is a play that deals with three individuals who each have their own agendas, a depressed young playwright who has been considering suicide, his friend who ostensibly wants to help him out of his funk, and a prostitute who is supposed to do the job. But as the play progresses, and a second scene a year later is added, it is clear that what was happening on the surface was only a small part of the story. If subtext, then is the basic criterion, the play certainly has it. Still, in what way does it follow that subtext is the sole or even major criterion for “best?”

The volume ends with a set of seven plays which were produced together as a benefit for a multiarts center in New York. Collected under the title Seven Card Draw, they are separate and distinct pieces, and although they are all in theory, according to the creator Daniel Gallant, “darkly comic tales about risk and reward,” they are also available for performance individually. In other words they do not constitute a single work. If that is the case, are all seven of the plays examples of the “best?” Truth be told, they are an uneven bunch. Four of the seven are monologues, and of the four only Neil LaBute’s “Totally,” which deals with a young woman’s revenge on her cheating fiancée is really impressive in its creation of character. The other three, all by notables—John Guare, Clay McLeod Chapman and Gallant, himself—are nicely done, but I don’t know about “best.” Indeed the other three plays in the set are fine enough as well, but none is particularly memorable.

Enough carping, there are some gems in the volume. Jill Elaine Hughes has concocted a brilliant feminist comedy in This is Your Lifetime which mashes together television for women, feminine hygiene and Chunky Monkey some good natured laughs. Avi Glickstein’s Pair and a Spare makes a clever comment on the failures of human connection. Death Comes for a Wedding is Joe Tracz’ Kafkaesque vision of a personified Death demanding a bride as a sacrifice to avoid his wrath. Samuel Brett Williams tells the story of three misfits living in despair in Arkansas a few years after Katrina in The Trash Bad Tourist. These are finely crafted plays and worthy of inclusion in any reasonable “best of anthology.”

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