The third edition of AdA: Author Directing Author has programmed three one-acts based on the theme of power. This year AdA founders Neil LaBute and Marco Calvani are joined by Spanish playwright Marta Buchaca, with each presenting a play directed by one of the others.
The first piece, Calvani’s After the Dark, directed by Buchaca, opens on Susan, or Susie (a remarkable Margaret Colin), a lamp designer, and her assistant Jessie, a wide-eyed, lithe beauty played gracefully by Gabby Beans, who are attending a trade show. The relationship doesn’t seem out of the ordinary: Jessie looks harried, tired and overworked, like any personal assistant, and Susie is fired up and ready to talk shop even though it’s 11 p.m. and they have to be up early.
When Jessie reveals she’s going out, Susie goes into a panic. She clearly craves companionship and relies on Jessie’s company, even if she’s paying her assistant to be there. However, as a boss, Susie is dismissive, arrogant and impatient. She wants to control Jessie because she believes in an old-fashioned hierarchy in which you work your way up. Jessie, on the other hand, has not only the idealism of youth, but also a millennial’s understanding of the way the world works. The world is her oyster, and she knows she can open it, even if she has to use her sexuality.
Unfortunately, Jessie equates female power with wearing a slinky dress to get a man in bed. That sounds like an old equation, just as the equation that’s made for Susie, who should be going out and having fun too. Instead, her theme song should be the Rolling Stones’ song “Mother’s Little Helper,” in which Mick Jagger sings, “What a drag it is getting old.” Jessie seems to have the power in the end, but she doesn’t seem to have any kind of true power.
Female power is again called into question in Buchaca’s Summit, directed by LaBute. A mayor clearing his office, played with a combination of authority and disbelief by Victor Slezak, condescends to the newly arrived Latina mayor, played with a wonderful mixture of fury and fear by Dalia Devi. Reluctant to leave, he hangs around. Yet there’s a gladiatorial sense to his presence, as if he’s waiting for the real battle to begin. And it does, when social media threatens to destroy everything the young, incoming mayor has built.
The play examines the use of social media by politicians, a topic more apropos today than ever before. Social media turns the tides back and forth in a matter of minutes. The game is slippery and hits the weakest the hardest. As a woman, the new mayor finds her power more deeply questioned, and sexist assertions are made by the former mayor who, at first, appears to be defeated, but in the end leaves triumphant.
In I Don’t Know What I Can Save You From, written by LaBute and directed by Calvani, a father and daughter meet in a café. It’s their first meeting in a while, and it’s tense. The father, Simon, played with a blend of hope and disgust by Richard Kind, wants to be more of a part of his daughter Jane’s life. But Jane (Gia Crovatin) has set him the impossible task of reading an enormous document that outlines conditions for having him back in her life. Apparently, he was a real scuzzball, and she wants him to pay for it by recapitulating her father’s presence in her life without allowing the hurt and pain he has caused her in the past. No good comes of this meeting, and an unexpected and disturbing surprise awaits at the end.
The set design by Neil Patel is simple and pared down. Each act is afforded a table and two chairs which sometimes create a feeling of intimacy and, at other times, leaves the actors stranded: an effect that is useful in highlighting the power struggle between the characters.
The realism of LaBute, Calvani and Buchaca’s plays tugs at the heart and mind. On one hand, to offer some solutions or hope of change regarding sexism, ageism, and male authority would have been a confirmation that the hard work of the past has had some effect. Instead, as Bertolt Brecht wrote, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” The playwrights demonstrate how male and female power is still highly unbalanced in our society, and male power is still able flip the tables, often in brutal ways.
AdA: Author Directing Author runs at the Ellen Stewart Theater at La MaMa (66 East 4th St.) through Feb. 5. Performances are at 7 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and at 4 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $18 and $13 and may be purchased by phone at (212) 352-3101 or online at www.lamama.org.