A Festival of New American Short Plays presented by Throughline Artists is part of the 59E59 Theaters Summer Shorts Series A Program. 10K by Neil LaBute, Glenburn 12 WP by Vickie Ramirez, and The Sentinels by Matthew Lopez were specifically developed as one-act plays 30 minutes in length. Their adroit selection and arrangement in this program present an interesting and increasingly complex overall commentary about male-female relationships, racial discrimination, and the grieving process as poignant aspects of human Americana.
LaBute, Ramirez and Lopez use humor, pathos, plot twists and the unconventional to keep up lively engagement and suspense. There is always the unexpected lurking around the corner in each of the one-acts and the “gotcha” elements are hidden until the climax, or, in the case of 10K, the anti-climax.
LaBute’s 10K (directed by the playwright) slowly builds then recedes and slips away. The audience is left imagining the potential future possibilities in the lives of the characters. The Man is played with wry humor and adorable if simple good will by J.J. Kandel, the Woman with coy flirtation and edgy wholesomeness by Clea Alsip.
10K refers to the number of meters that these two athletic runners usually commit to on their fitness schedule, which takes them on runs through a nature preserve. We get to watch as they run through the preserve at a rhythmic pace and converse about their lives, their spouses and their foibles. They uncover superficial elements of their lives and also reveal a lot about their problematic, potentially failing marriages.
We are exhausted watching this quintessentially American Everyman and Everywoman run for practically the entire play (there are a few breaks). I admired the actors’ stamina and conditioning (no breathiness), though the Man does exude a bit of sweat (J.J. Kandel is very fit so this might be “induced” for us chair potatoes). The steady beating of their sneakers and gentle sway of their bodies would be monotonous if not for the humorous patter with shades of innuendo at each turn of their jogging riffs.
The tone and direction of their conversations reveal their attraction to one another though it is never acted upon. As their run takes them deeper into the material preserve and metaphoric forest of conversation, we gather the sense that if they meet and jog again in the future, each run will evolve toward entanglement and clandestine relationship. LaBute is showing us how such an affair begins.
The playwright tweaks our assumptions and surprises us with spousal themes about marriage relationships. He spins tropes about temptation, unrest, boredom, unhappiness, incompatibility, emotional neediness, disaffection and discouragement. The themes are ripe. We see how easy it is to reveal to a complete stranger spousal intimacies and marriage and parenting failures as subtle, nagging complaint.
The irony is that we do this in the interest of yearning for someone to listen. The danger is that if someone listens, will the confidences lead to intimacies?
LaBute presents these themes in a refreshing way and reveals how “innocent” conversation can be anything but. This is no “matter-of-fact” jog between strangers. Their desire for intimacy is the fertile ground of possibility. And though the ending is a pleasant, anti-climactic goodbye where “nothing” happens, cleverly and humorously LaBute suggests the initiation to their affair has begun. Who will precipitate the next step? It is only a matter of going.
In Glenburn 12 WP, the truth remains hidden until it explodes at the climax of the action. Troy (W. Tre Davis manipulating the black-male stereotype beautifully and showing it up with rich precision) and Roberta (Tanis Parenteau in a moment-to-moment powerful portrayal) bring us to an unexpected edge-of-our-seat reveal.
Playwright Ramirez and director Kel Haney use humor and our assumptions about race to lay the groundwork, then take us on a twisted ride of intrigue between a man and a woman in a bar whose bartender has absented himself for the entire time they are there.
Again, as in 10K there is banter, quick repartee and set-up between male and female. Yet there is no apparent attempt to show interest in one another. Rather, there is a cold space of distrust between the two. In the groundwork, the fields are laden with land mines. There are issues and complications that clue us to expect that the interaction between this woman and man will reflect racial and gender issues. Roberta is a knowing and astute Caucasian woman and Troy is a young black man who appears furtive and slick, though it is Roberta who helps herself to the alcohol and seems comfortable and almost too confident in the setting.
During their conversation it becomes apparent that we must reserve our judgments. Troy is extremely clever, “street-smart,” and savvy about cultural social norms and expectations. He has an acute sensitivity to racial profiling (most probably heightened by the black protest march on the streets outside the bar). He seems prepared for every eventuality, relying on an extraordinary sensibility to size up people. He is wary of Roberta.
To soften him up and create empathy, she buys him a beer and reveals she is non-white, a Native American. What she doesn’t tell him is that she is there with a grave, secret purpose and she intends to make him a part of it. However, Troy is “on to her.” When he confides in her, his revelation actually builds his confidence. When she discovers who he is and what he stands for, she realizes she has been guilty of racial profiling, and the hypocrisy forces her to change her plans and confess a truth.
Ramirez sends the play to another level when Roberta attempts to have Troy find out where the bartender is. It is then that the flux of stereotypes and intrigue moves to its final reveal and thrilling climax. It is not without pathos, for we are shown that once more, those on the lowest level of hierarchical social scale are women – and at the very bottom are Native American women. Even though they may have “progressed” and gained status, there is still tremendous discrimination against them that they have internalized and must overcome.
These intricate psychological patterns remain under the radar, and the play suggests that the very nature of Native Americans and their stoic approach in life is a liability and a detriment that stands in the way of true social, spiritual and psychological elevation.
In The Sentinels written by Matthew Lopez and directed by Stephen Brackett, there are only the women who meet at a coffee shop. The title is ironic, for the characters we watch – Alice (an acute portrayal by Meg Gibson as the leader of this communal group), Kelly (Michelle Beck), Christa (Kellie Overbey), and the Waitress (Zuzanna Szadkowski) – are the “watchers.” This acting ensemble works seamlessly together, the portrayals both humorous and poignant.
There are no men nor overt husband-wife conflicts. We discover why as the play progresses in reverse chronological order, beginning in 2011 and moving backward to 2000. Gradually, we watch as the women move toward a different, more powerful emotional gradient and the stakes become heightened.
Lopez’s clues force us to think how these women both evolve and devolve through present and past events. For example, in 2009 the Waitress characterizes each member of the group and brings us to the awareness that they are widows. We put the pieces together for 2008; we understand that this election year the Ground Zero Memorial Service is being used by politicians to achieve their own ends. Lopez sends us backward through 2007, 2006 at the coffee shop near Ground Zero, to 2004 when the conversation is about Alice, Kelly and Christa’s husbands working for the same company at the World Trade Center. In 2002 at Kelly’s suggestion they vow to go to the coffee shop each year after the Memorial Service to bond as a family having suffered a great tragedy.
The brilliance of this work is in its organization. We are forced to make meaning by following the action in reverse chronological order to 2000. The structure helps inform our understanding of events and the themes about grieving and loss as the women have been forced to piece together a new life for themselves. We note the impact of events and time on each woman as she has left off her mourning cloak and the point at which she said, “enough.” And we come to understand that one of the women will never overcome her grief and loss. She will always mourn. She cannot move on with her life because she has set up a shrine of her husband in her heart.
The climax is riveting. It is the year 2000. The women are together at a joyful occasion. Their conversation holds great irony. Only we realize a year later their lives will be shattered, their joy over. The impact is stunning. The theme of carpe diem and “making each moment count,” resonates. Lopez’s concise dialogue and the reverse scene order coming to rest on the women’s innocence and ours, beginning and ending at the year 2000, establish this play as a vibrant masterwork.
The Summer Shorts Program Series A will run until August 29.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00I55B5RO][amazon template=iframe image&asin=088145222X][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0805094210]