Fistful of One-Acts

Tucked away in the tiny loft theater space of Hell's Kitchen is the Ensemble Studio Theater. For such a small venue, EST can certainly claim an enormous amount of activity during June with its annual marathon of one-act plays. This year's marathon boasts three sets of rotating presentations. Series A and B premiered earlier; Series C of Marathon 2006 just opened. Unlike the other two series, which each put on four one-acts, the eclectic Series C includes a fifth, making it even more of a treat. The first of these is Dominica: The Fat, Ugly 'Ho, written by Stephen Adly Guirgis (The Last Days of Judas Iscariot). Adam Rapp, the writer/director who recently caused a stir Off-Broadway with Red Light Winter, directs this cute, fast-moving Upper Upper West Side story, which is actually a riff on Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac.

Rolando (Carlo Alban) tries to win back his high school girlfriend, Mylene (Liza Colon Zayas), after a fight that resulted in her stabbing him in the abdomen with a Bic pen. He does so by arguing with her in the middle of the night as she hovers above on the fire escape, while Rolando's friend Carlos (Dominic Cloon) prompts him while perched behind some garbage pails. All three performers are naturals. I'll assume they are older than high school age, but one would never guess it from their pitch-perfect work.

The next featured one-act has a long title but is a little short on substance: The Night That Roger Went to Visit the Parents of His Old High School Girlfriend, in which college kid Roger (Jack Carpenter) visits the parents of, yes, his ex-girlfriend Kitty, only to be informed by her mother, Marlene, that Kitty has died. Playwright Ann Marie Healy too often shifts back and forth between black humor and sorrow. For example, as Marlene (the terrific Patricia Kalember, best known for TV's Sisters) delivers the bad news to Roger, she does so in a droll, mundane way—then immediately gives way to tears.

This would be understandable in a straight drama, but director Andrew McCarthy (a 1980's Brat Packer) opts for a more off-center presentation style as Roger, Marlene, and Kitty's mostly mute father, Herbert (Daniel Geroll), share conflicting memories of her in a succession of rapid-fire scenes. Had Roger, or its individual scenes, run longer, McCarthy could have allowed the tone to build and take shape.

Detail, Michael Louis Wells's overreaching tale of sibling love and contempt, ends the first act. Wayne (John Leonard Thompson) and Madeleine (Dana Powers Acheson) are a brother and sister involved in a slight tug-of-war as she tries to convince her truant brother to come home for the holidays (he hasn't in years). Both actors are sensational, and director Lou Jacob handles the action admirably, but Wells incorporates too many capital-I issues (their dead father, a big secret on Madeleine's part) to successfully cram into 20 or so minutes. Perhaps a little less exposition would have been sufficient—the duo needs to dwell on only one sticky issue in their past to explain their resulting estrangement.

Edward Allen Baker's Lila on the Wall is where the evening loses some traction. Lila (Julia Leedes) is an ambitious television reporter trying to put together a follow-up story about an appearance of Jesus against a graffiti-laden skid row wall. Carl (Will Janowitz, who plays Finn on The Sopranos), her cameraman, is the yang to her yin—free-spirited, optimistic, spontaneous. He tries to get her to step back and look at her life and career with a broader perspective. Kevin Confoy directs their comic interplay with aplomb, but the one-act never really gets to higher ground. Additionally, Leedes does most of the work here, picking up Janowitz's slack. Most of the other one-acts are substantive enough to envision them becoming full-length works, but Lila feels more limited from the outset.

The final one-act is The Bus to Buenos Aires, written by Curtis Moore and Thomas Mizer, and based on the Spanish story "Las Hermanas de Javier Wiconda." Like Roger, Bus also deals in darker humor, but does so a little more successfully. Paulo (Sebastian La Cause) returns home after one of his three sisters dies. The twist is, he does not know which one has died (the wire he received did not identify her). Paulo has a daydream en route in which he pictures each sister's potential death to help him brace for the mourning to come.

This is the kind of magic realism employed by the best Latin American authors, such as Gabriel Garcia Márquez, and it works here too, especially as director Carlos Armesto turns these flights of fancy into low-key musical sequences. It's a solid choice to end an evening of works united by one strong thread: a unique vision that strays far left of the middle.

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