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.