10x10 Upstreet 2015, New Play Festival - 10 minute plays by Emily Taplin Boyd, Bekah Brunstetter, Ron Burch, John Cariani, Brett Hursey, Christopher Innvar, Stephen Kaplan, James McLindon, Chris Newbound, Kelly Younger. Directed by Julianne Boyd and Stephanie Yankwitt. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Peggy Pharr Wilson and Robert Zukerman; photo: David Fertik
"Knowing you will survive a near death experience? Exhileration!"
Jessie Shelton and Zach Wymore; photo: David Fertik
Let's begin with the cast: six amazingly talented people who can inhabit the souls of many different characters with only a minute or two between their appearances before us. Let's add two directors who move actors around in ways that capture our attention and reinforce our own imaginations as we watch and listen. Throw in ten creative writers who have found new ways to show us the human condition and what do we have - 10x10 Uptown, an annual evening of new works in Pittsfield, MA, courtesty the productive forces of Barrington Stage Company.
This year's edition is grounded in fine work. Different work. Light comedies and romantic comedies with dramatic pieces that are sometimes intense. Here and there we find reminiscent plays that eventually go their own ways, a monologue that touches on the familiar and the odd at the same time, psycho-sexual confusers that create their own questions and one piece written for a play that has captured our attention in the past but never with this one-act love-quest that Barrington Stage has given us this year. It's an excellent mix with only a slight miss here and there, but not a miss that distracts from the success of the venture overall.
In Stephen Kaplan's play For Unto Us two children, Mary and Joseph played superbly by Jessie Shelton and Zach Wymore, discuss role playing, religion, parenting, shoes, Biblical history, death and a myriad of other subjects finding conclusions that astound us with their singular adulthood. Directed by Julianne Boyd it is a mood changer from what has preceded it. The lightness and the humor are an antidote from the play before it, also directed by Boyd.
That play is Exhileration by Christopher Innvar introduces us to Roz and Bern, an older couple played by the superb Peggy Pharr Wilson and the excellent Robert Zukerman, who are finishing up a meal in a diner. Here we have two people in crisis: his driving has caused severe consternation and fear in Roz and their daughter and the two discuss the possibility of missing Thanksgiving with their family as a result of his inability to control the car. That he has an infallible plan for not dying in an accident is not a consolation. However, it is the point in this short look into the lives of our parents, that reveals the comedy in a situation that could become a tragedy and Boyd makes the most of this intimate, non-romance by using Innvar's final lines to create a soft and comfortable romantic pinnacle. All three do great work here.
Stat! by Ron Burch opens the first half of the evening with Christina Norris and Zach Wymore having the best "meet-cute" of the group, two injured and ill people meeing in a hospital emergency room and finding love is the cure-all for even stomach flu. Also directed by Boyd, it is a whimsical, physical comedy that plays like the finest British rom-com. Wymore is wonderful and Norris has a physical control in her comedy that is both precious and a bit disturbing.
Chris Newbound's Just Friends is a light, breezy comedy about office romance in which Sam, played with complete confidence by Matt Neeley, and Amanda - flighty and whimsical in the hands of Shelton, part, revive, part, come together, part and take part in a romantic fling that threatens each of their imperfect realities. Stephanie Yankwitt does well for her author here and makes this slight adventure into something to ponder.
The first half ends with another play directed by Yankwitt, Kelly Younger's Mandate. Two men set up on a date by their wives compete for the award for least understanding human being. For me this was the weakest of the plays and even reading it afterward, which I did, left me wondering why it has had so many productions and why it is included here. Wymore and Neeley bring little enlightenment to the work and the director seems to have left them at sea.
Neeley and Zukerman, on the otherhand have a triumph at the top of the second halfr under Yankwitt's very fine direction in James McLindon's play Broken. This political drama, brokering trust, rebellion and truth, is compelling and intriguing and feels like the first scene of a much longer, even heavier work. It is calls to mind other works, films and plays and musical, that deal with two men in a prison cell under suspicious circumstances that only works in its favor. Both men give performances in this play that will stand the test of time. You sit with your heart pounding in your mouth as they engage in whatever it is they are working. Suspicions pass back and forth and reality is altered almost with every other line. One of the finest plays presented in this, or any other anthology series, Broken is the play to see. It cannot be missed.
The monologue Visiting Dad by Emily Taplin Boyd is given its due by Peggy Pharr Wilson. The second Amanda of the evening she is engaged in the annual visit to her father's resting place. It's an odd one and I will not disclose it but this family drama/comedy is given a sci-fi angle that will not please everyone, though it will intrigue, and Wilson's delightfully off-hand and unemotional explanation of what she endures on her visits is quite something to witness. A smile can go a long way to relieve the anxiety provoked by the death of a loved one, and her goes even further on this peculiar little journey. Certainly the most character driven play in the group, decide for yourself which character is at the wheel.
Bekah Brunstetter's play Cuddle is the most peculiar portrait of an impossible relationship that I have ever seen. Neely and Shelton play unlikely lovers in an office romance that is at once loveable and off-putting. Yankwitt employs lovely images to show the progress of this lovematch and the actors pull off the difficult progression with ease. If God rested on the seventh day of the creation, Neely's Anthony is left with no other option but that one and the bittersweet aspect of that is nicely shown by this actor.
A Wish by John Cariani is a scene clearly deleted from his biggest hit play, Almost, Maine. It should be reinstated instantly. A woman in the north country stares at the stars and when a local authority comes to move her along it is almost as though fate has helped them connect. Wilson and Zukerman, once again, enact this inspired vignette infusing it with their charm and talent and, under Boyd's careful direction, release pherenoms into the air. You can literally feel what the lines don't tell you. It's a perfect piece and a wonderful prelude to the oddity of the final work of the evening.
Brett Hursey's Wedding Belles comes so close to Neil Simon's style of writing that it is maddening even as it amuses in ways that Simon has never achieved. Norris is a bride trying to avoid a pre-nuptials visit from her groom, Wymore. When he finally invades her room it is with the shocking revelation that traditional fare is not his style. The sturm-und-drang that follows is both funny and touching and when her father, played by Zukerman, is ultimately allowed to enter, the ending of the play is a joyous bit of hilarity. Reading the play I question some choices Boyd made in bringing this to the stage as a double-edged comic moment in the writing is subverted, but nevertheless, this is a funny play delectably delivered.
Costume designer Emily King has really outdone herself in defining characters with their clothing. Dylan Uremovich has made the most of his lighting design plot providing both mood and solidity to the these short pieces. Beth Lake's sound design works well for each play. Even with the occasional weak spot the evening comes across successfully and the end result is a fine evening of theater by some of the brightest talents around. For the cold weather of February, this is a clear March forward to warmer events but then. . . romance is in the air at Barrington Stage and that can make the mid-winter difference.
Matt Neeley and Robert Zukerman; photo: David Fertik
Christina Norris; photo: David Fertik
10x10 Upstreet plays through March 1 on the St. Germain Stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Art Center locatged ato 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, MA. For information and tickets contact the theater at 413-236-8888 or go on line at barringtonstageco.org.