I go in with tempered expectations to any production consisting of many short plays. An assortment of works by multiple playwrights usually feels like a crapshoot, where I hope enough of the work is good enough to make the evening a net plus. Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB) has a history of commissioning good work, often from distinguished playwrights, and staging good productions. But its programs too can be catch-as-catch-can.
Not so with this season’s Power Plays, a set of five world-premiere short plays by well-known auteurs. The collection offers something of a master class in the many styles of contemporary writing for the stage.
The show opens with sparkling naturalism punctuated by violent fantasy in Bekah Brunstetter‘s Murder. Two old frenemies meet in a café just as one is anxiously enjoying a literary success the other feels is undeserved. Pamela Sabaugh and Anita Hollander have brilliant fun with the delicious dark humor of Brunstetter’s dialogue, in which at least half the meaning lies in the pauses and silences and interruptions.
Next and in extreme contrast comes another two-hander, Neil LaBute’s I Dare You, an unsubtle drama of seduction – unsubtle not in the tactics of the seducer (Samantha Debicki in a creepily fetching mode) but in the dialogue displaying everything in plain speech, right on the surface. There’s zero subtext here. This may be why LaBute’s work can be tiring at full length, but over the course of an in-your-face 15 minutes this particular short lands solidly, like a brisk punch.
Broad humor lights up the midpoint of the program with Bruce Graham’s The Happy F&*#@!G Blind Guy. In a frank and sweetly hilarious performance, David Rosar Stearns hams it up delightfully as a sightless grocery-store bagger who exasperates his high-strung, grouchy boss (Nicholas Viselli) with his professional excellence and unceasing good cheer, then surprises him with an unexpected side to his disability that helps explain his high spirits.
John Guare’s Between shows that a writer can abstract language, story and character into separate layers and still create a compelling narrative. Two Beckettian anypeople who could be any sex or age meet in a fancy restaurant where one bares her soul about the complex her mother gave her as a child, then plays a mean trick on the other. That’s all that happens, but the half-elevated, half-disintegrated dialogue loops it into a gleaming arc.
Ann Marie Morelli from I Dare You reappears in the final piece, David Henry Hwang’s Underground, her wheelchair more integral to the story this time. Trapped in the Times Square subway station with every elevator out of service, Marin (Morelli) encounters a surprise kindred spirit after her able-bodied husband and helpful strangers prove more aggravating than helpful. After Hwang renders the noisy, dirty underworld of the city in broad, short-story strokes, the daffy comedy ends with a moment of deep childlike awe that offers the audience a celebratory note to close with.
How often will every play in a program of five short plays succeed on its own terms? Power Plays is a rarity. Go see it, support TBTB’s admirable work providing opportunities for actors with and without disabilities to work together, and leave with a spring in your step–or a bounce in your chair. It runs through June 29 at Theatre Row’s Clurman Theatre (410 W. 42nd St.). For tickets call 212-239-6200 or visit Telecharge.