To write a very short play is a challenging assignment. To create characters and a storyline with enough substance to make an impression, while at the same time making them recognizably real and interesting without taking Drama 101 shorcuts, is hard enough in two hours; accomplishing it in 20 minutes is that much more difficult. The Red Fern Theatre Company asked six playwrights each to write a short play about gentrification, a subject near, if not dear, to the hearts of so many New Yorkers. The six tried a variety of approaches; some work, some don’t.
The biggest problems come when writers smash characters with disparate backgrounds together and force them to interact in ways that seem wholly artificial in order to get the emotional action going. This dooms Jon Kern’s Ours Is the Future. Ours Is the Past, in which the apartment of a yuppie couple in a “transitioning” neighborhood has been broken into and the husband suspects two mechanics who work in a neighboring garage of knowing something about it. These two likable men, on the verge of losing their garage to high rents, have been bantering about whether the hedgehogs or baby seals they’ve seen on TV are cuter; but the yuppie husband, blinded by prejudice and fear, barges in and accuses them of involvement in the burglary, acting as if he really knows them. The wife comes by later to apologize but, bizarrely, opens up emotionally. It makes zero sense.
The same problem ruins Janine Nabers’ (2) 11. Mugged by local street thugs, a young white woman with a baby gets the runaround at the police station, but one sympathetic cop bonds with her. This cop bears so little resemblance to real New York City policemen that I wondered whether the playwright has ever met one. “Why have you been so nice to me?” the victim asks. “‘Cause no one else around here will,” he replies with mild empathy. Sorry, no; by and large, our police are helpful and professional, but they don’t resemble this guy in the least. A surprise ending isn’t enough to rescue the play.
Carla Ching’s First of the Month fares better, mostly because its three characters are more colorful and interesting. It, too, ends up relying on a sudden bond between two people who’ve never met before, but that’s less bothersome here because these young protagonists, charged up by the emotions of moving day, are actually recognizable New York types we can imagine getting it on in conversation.
Most colorful of all, and funny, is Joshua Conkel’s Robert Mapplethorpe Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which frames gentrification as a matter of gay vs. queer; excellent performances by Devin Norik as a gay yuppie with a baby and Andrée St. Clair Thompson as a homeless, transgendered heroin addict who find they have more in common than they thought help make the play a compact delight.
Crystal Skillman’s Crawl brings together two estranged brothers to argue over the sale of their childhood Brooklyn home; the playwright skilfully reveals their characters and backgrounds in a satisfying way. Taking the most liberty with the theme is Michael John Garcés, who spins a manic haunted-house tale that seems—though its stichomythic dialogue is a bit hard to follow—to borrow its twist from the movie The Others but has a scare-tastic time getting there.
Gentrifusion, presented by the Red Fern Theatre Company, runs through Feb. 13 at the LABA Theatre at the 14th Street Y, New York.
Photos by Jordan Popalis. 1) Nathan Hinton and Sheldon Best in Crawl. 2) André St. Clair Thompson and Devin Norik in Robert Mapplethorpe Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.