Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
11th Annual 10x10 New Play Festival
Plays by Ellen Abrams, Laurie Allen, Glenn Alterman, Cynthia Faith Arsenault, John Bavoso, Steven Korbar,
Mark Harvey Levine, Chelsea Marcantel, Cary Pepper, Robert Weibezahl.
Directed by Julianne Boyd and Matt Penn. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"Is it in the subtext?"
Ten new short plays, with an emphasis on funny are gracing the mainstage of Barrington Stage Company's Pittsfield complex at the moment. One or two of them could be considered laugh-riots while the rest are amusing and thought-compelling. This year's crop makes a fine mixture of theatrical experiences. You come away pleased with the two hours you've spent in comfortable seats watching talented people changing their voices, and styles playing the characters imagined by talented writers. Not a moment is wasted. And as usual a theme emerges from the evening and that theme is expressed in the line quoted at the top of this review: "is it in the subtext ?" Each of these ten plays lives below its surface dialogue; each has a story to tell that isn't always evident from the first lines. This year's ten plays delve deeper than their first idea.
Robert Zukerman and Peggy Pharr Wilson in "Stealing a Kiss"; Photo: David Dashiell
After the usual Matt Neely opening "number," which give the show an instant comic lift, the first play contrasts a gregarious man and a reserved woman waiting for a bus in inclement weather. Laurie Allen's Stealing a Kiss is the perfect Robert Zukerman and Peggy Pharr Wilson take on the human character in a very human situation. They grab the stage and the new and the familiar open the show. It couldn't be a better choice. On the surface it's a pick-up by an older man of a careful woman, but underneath it is really about human hunger; the simple becomes subtle and the truth slips into the piece at the right moment. These two actors are the perfect pair to play these two people.
This is followed by Love Me, Love My Work by Glenn Alterman from which comes my review title. Wilson and Matt Neely contend with a writer's dilemma when a play isn't working just right. When it turns out that murderer Wilson may not be dealing with a real person, but perhaps a character, the play moves into its "other" level and the whole concept of creativity comes into question. A provocative play with excellent actors.
Matt Neely in the opening number; Photo: David Dashiell
These first plays were well directed by Julianne Boyd and the next piece brought the other director, Matt Penn, into the show with Honesty by Stephen Korbar. Doug Harris and Kelsey Rainwater played the couple with difficulties. The first half of the program continues with the three women together in Gown by Robert Weibezahl which examines the relationship between a young woman and her mother in crisis, Wedding gowns are the medium they use and the saleswoman is swept into their melodrama. It is one of the sweetest plays in this collection of new works, beautifully staged by Boyd.
The first half ends with Matthew Penn's staging of John Bavoso's hilarious An Awkward Conversation in the Shadow of Mount Mariah. Abraham (Robert Zukerman) and his son Isaac (Doug Harris), shortly after Daddy's sacrifice on the mountain. One of the funniest scripts in the group the modern language take on these Biblical folk brings a new understanding to a near-tragic event. I could watch this play countless times and find more things in it each time. It is a delightful comedy turn for both men and a figurative rock that half-fills the stage.
Doug Harris and Aziza Gharib in "Misfortune"; Photo: David DAshiell
Part Two of the show opens with Escape from Faux Pas by Cynthia Faith Aresenault in which an older couple, newly settled in a ritzy retirement community, accidentally open a neighbor's mail and struggle with the aftermath of this mistake. Penn brings a sense of vaudeville and burlesque into Wilson and Zukerman's work in this hoot of a play. I'm not sure who was more exhausted after this, the actors or the audience wracked with laughter.
Penn follows this with Ellen Abrams' Liars Anonymous in which Neely and Gharib confess their life "stories" to one another while cleaning up after a meeting. One outrageous contortion after another escape their lips and the two characters live to tell another tale. . .and who knows where each might go for the facts. Boyd follows this with a hectic tale of comic woe in Misfortune by Mark Harvey Levine in which a man is torturted by an alarming collection of fortune cookie papers as his wife who actually seems to enjoy the dangers too much. A waitress played by Rainwater and a man from a different dining area complete the awkward picture here in a play about believing too strongly in the accidents of fate and the fate of too little knowledge.
When the contents of comedy stir truths rather than ridicule the outcome is often hard to take but this group of new plays does just the opposite. The final two plays in the group are excellent examples of this, particularly in the final work. Under Penn's direction Chelsea Marcantel's play, Climax examines the ways in which three different people see their relationships with one another. It is a good play, one of the more serious in the group though using a comic gimmick, but it is the play that ends the show that takes things to a new, relevant level. The Voice of the People by Cary Pepper gives Boyd an opportunity to turn her company into an entire town. Zukerman plays an MSNBC-type commentator interviewing folks after the vote in a local election and the other five actors play everyone else in town. They change characters as easily as they change hats and out in the audience we can find ourselves on the stage as the subtext takes its final revenge on us theater-goers.
Robert Zukerman and Doug Harris in "Am Awkward Conversation in the Shadow of Mount Mariah"; Photo: David Dashiell
This collection of plays inhabits a space framed by the setting designed by Brian Prather and coordinated by Joseph F. Martin, a variation on the usual 10x10 set used on the smaller stage of the company's second stage, the Mark St. Germain. Costumes for this production have been provided by Nicole Slaven who helps show us more than just people but each person's taste. Lucas Pawelski has designed the lighting of each play and he suits the view to the vision. Alexander Sovronsky, as usual, provides provocative sound design to the show, altering the mood for each piece.
Barrington Stage introduces us each winter to new playwrights with new purposes and this year is a total winner with each new play presenting someone unique and talented. It is always a pleasure finding the unexpected in an experience that enlarges our world, as this collection surely does.
+ 02/27/2022 +
Peggy Pharr Wilson and Aziza Gharib in "Gown";
Photo: David Dashiell
10x10 New Play Festival plays on the Boyd-Quinson Stage at Barrington Stage Company, through March 13. For information and tickets go to their website at www.barringtonstagecompany.org.