10X10 on North New Play Festival: Entrances and Exits with plays by Suzanne Bradbeer, Sara Cooper, Laura Shaine Cunningham, Will Eno, Jacqueline Goldfinger, Mikhail Horowitz, Maureen McGranaghan, Chris Newbound, Marisa Smith and Cait Weisensee, directed by Julianne Boyd, Tom Gladwell, Frank La Frazia, David Sernick, and Mark St. Germain.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Engage me with your narrative to relieve the tedium..."
Robert Zukerman and Peggy Pharr Wilson; photo: Kevin Sprague
Ten new plays in two hours and ten minutes (with an intermission) is the gift you get for plunking down a few bucks this week at Barrington Stage Company’s Stage 2 space on Linden Street in Pittsfield, MA. You get the ten dishes enhanced by the thick and luscious sauce that is the result of mixing together six talented actors and five talented directors and adding them to mix. When you get up from this smorgasbord of entertainment you ache from a combination of laughter and intrigue and you walk a little wonky, trying to keep everything in its place. It’s an effort but it is so worthwhile.
Of the actors Peggy Pharr Wilson and Robert Zukerman provide all the pepper any show needs to perk it up. Ryland Thomas and Lily Balsen add a touch of cumin, a dash of cayenne, a twist of full-stick cinnamon. Matt Neely is the salt and Emily Taplin Boyd tosses in green herbs galore, the sweetness of tarragon, the tongue-twist of basil and the expansive lushness of fresh parsley.
Of the ten plays, a few are really only sketches, those wonderful television bits where the end isn’t an end - yet, and the characters aren’t what they might be. Some are more fully developed ideas that do pay-off but still leave you hungry while a few, just a few, are fine one-act plays that can easily stand on their own for a lifetime of theater-going.
The play that closes this group, "Fugu" by Shaine Cunningham, directed by Julianne Boyd, is a relationship comedy centered on a dangerous Japanese delicacy that can either thrill or kill, depending upon the skill of the server. It has a beginning, fine characters, a hilarious moment or two and an ending that shouldn’t surprise anyone yet manages to bring the play to a perfect conclusion. It is concerned with endings and it has more than one. It also deals with the idea of mismatched idealism and romantic notions. All in ten minutes. Lily Balsen is a delight in this dessert of a play.
"Lannie’s Lament" by Jacqueline Goldfinger, directed by Mark St. Germain, is a one-hander, a monodrama in which Peggy Pharr Wilson tells the story of a death and a funeral in Florida with punch and warmth and dark humor. She shines brightest in the moments when the story is the most macabre and her Sula Lee’s smiling, sunshiny personality achieves an almost orgasmic high when she reveals the worst of the humid little tale’s horrors.
"God in the Goat" by Suzanne Bradbeer, directed by Frank La Frazia, was the weakest of the sketch comedy pieces for me. It opens the show and when it stops it leaves the stage for other, finer, more completed works. It could be the start of a better play, but it certainly doesn’t feel finished.
Chris Newbound’s "Lunch With Amanda", also directed by La Frazia, also somewhat disappoints as a play. Its two characters must have more to talk about, but in this format they don’t really have the chance to do so. A slight running gag about recognition and Harvard didn’t achieve the impact that I suspect the author was after. Well acted by Balsen and Thomas it might also be better if expanded a bit.
The third play, "Tenderness" by Maureen McGranaghan introduces romance and sex in combination and while the initial moments are all too familiar from sitcoms the outcome is lovely and touching and shows some finesse on the part of the author, the actors and the director, Tom Gladwell. Emily Taplin Boyd performs all of the critical emotional moments beautifully and Thomas is at his best in the "caught in the headlights" moments he has been given.
"Things I Left on Long Island" by Sara Cooper, directed by Boyd, is one of the best new one-act plays of the year. Frankly, the narrator could have been me and the other three characters my own family. It is a non-stop laugh-riot with a hilarious performance by Robert Zukerman and an equally delicious display of Lainie Kazanisms by Wilson. This play opens the second half of the show and easily makes a perfect showcase for all four of its actors. As sad and sick as some of it might appear to be, you just can’t stop the laughter and the tears. From the hilarity around me and throughout the small theater I know I am not alone in finding this one of the joyous finds of the festival.
It is followed by an odd one-man monologue which others seemed to enjoy, but which left me cold. Will Eno’s "Behold the Coach, In a Blazer, Uninsured" is an odd play about a man whose despair over a season gone wrong is only doubled by the sense of going wrong as it proceeds. St. Germain directed Matt Neely well and I could easily buy into the character’s clear discomfort, but I came from this play with little to know, or care, about.
"Total Expression" by Marisa Smith, directed by Gladwell, is a romp in which cultures and concepts mix in a street-side café and two women manage to offset one another’s deficits with their own clearly drawn assets. Boyd and Wilson are both terrific and Zukerman adds a bit of spice with his reactive acting. This is a play about the main courses of life and it certainly lays them all out on the table.
Zukerman is also a fascinating character in "The Story" by Mikhail Horowitz, directed by St. Germain. Two men rehash a situation in which cliche’s grow into mountains and their attendant molehills expand into sound effect cliches that threaten to capsize a slight situation. If there is a mystery course in this ten-course meal of theatrics this is the one. Neely is brilliant here as the tormentor of his companion and - who knows - these two men might be only one man, really, torturing himself as he searches desperately for an answer to his own life situation.
Alzheimer’s may be at the root of the coffee break human comedy, "Another Cup of Coffee" by Cait Weisensee, but as directed by David Sernick and acted by Zukerman and Wilson, with an assist by Boyd, it is an eye-opening sketch of a play that, despite its unsatisfying conclusion which leaves you wanting more and more, makes you know what a short play can achieve. Here is an artistic presentation of an all too human reality. What is in the playing here is an honest representation of the author’s intent. It is one of the treasures of this compilation of new works and I look forward to knowing more of this author’s work.
Two of the authors have had full-length plays performed by Barrington Stage in the past. I hope that more of their works will show up in this region over the next few years.
The production design team has done a nice job pulling this show together, particularly Jeff Roudabush with his lighting.
This is a brief run. You need to catch it while you can. And if you miss it, write a letter to Barrington Stage asking for a longer run the next time this company presents an evening of short new works. They are an adventure worth exploring.
Emily Taplin Boyd in "Tenderness"; photo Kevin Sprague
Matt Neely and Lily Balsen; photo: Kevin Sprague
10X10 On North runs at Stage 2 on Linden Street in Pittsfield through February 26. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-236-8888.