No matter how oppressively hot a New York summer can be, one of the dramatic oases in it has become the Summer Shorts Festival of New American Short Plays at 59E59 Theaters. Founded by artistic director (and often actor) J.J. Kandel 11 years ago, the mini-festival presents two bills of one-acts in repertory for several weeks. This year, Series B of Summer Shorts features Break Point, written and directed by Neil LaBute; A Woman, by Chris Cragin-Day, directed by Kel Haney; and Wedding Bash, written by Lindsey Kraft and Andrew Leeds, and directed by Kandel himself.
Leading the bill is Cragin-Day’s two-hander, about a woman, Kim (Jennifer Ikeda), visiting the office of her minister, Pastor Cliff (Mark Boyett). Kim has helped Cliff get his position. Now she wants him to recommend a woman as a church elder. But it’s not in his nature. Cliff loves the ritual of the church, just as he loves the ritual of coffee grinding that opens their discussion. He has become deaf to alternative thought.
“In the Presbyterian church, women cannot be elders,” Cliff reminds her. “Would you mind, please, mansplaining to me the difference,” she says joshingly, although she’s dead serious. “The world needs women in the conversation,” she tells Cliff. “Because they bring something important and valuable to it.” Yet Cragin-Day never specifies what that unique “something” missing from the conversation is, let alone why it is important. Instead, the conversation veers toward Kim’s being sexually harassed.
The give-and-take of Cliff and Kim’s genteel disagreement simmers but doesn’t catch fire. It’s made interesting by the actors, particularly Jennifer Ikeda as the wary, skeptical Kim, who maintains a cool firmness even when talking about her own experience of harassment. But where it ends up is no surprise.
The second play, Wedding Bash, has a genuine comic sensibility and solid structure. A newlywed couple, Lonny and Dana (Donovan Mitchell and Rachel Napoleon, respectively), who live in Los Angeles, are still in seventh heaven over their recent destination wedding in Sedona, Ariz., although some of the gifts have puzzled them. Their friend Edi gave them a ladle: “I thought she was doing well,” says Lonny. Their friend Alan gave them a fancy mixer for making margaritas. In Lonny and Dana’s assessment of the gifts, Edi comes up short, while Alan gets points for the $300 he spent. But since his gift wasn’t on their registry, they’ve returned it for the cash. As it happens, both Edi and Alan are stopping by, and what ensues is a delightful comeuppance for the mercenary newlyweds.
Andy Powers’s Alan is still steaming over the airfare it cost him to get to Arizona, and the pregnant Edi (Georgia Ximenes Lifsher) is on the same page. Alan has determined that, as a longtime friend, he should advise them of their wedding’s shortcomings. Edi doubts that, but Alan can’t resist. Powers plays the comic turmoil of his character with sly and terrific reactions; he is matched by Edi’s increasing apprehension that she’ll be drawn into backing him up, and Napoleon’s Dana, a short fuse that needs the merest spark to light up. The result, under Kandel’s direction, is a small comic gem, but you’ll hope for more from Kraft and Leeds, and soon.
The well-known Neil LaBute, who often works in one-acts, has provided the third play, Break Point, and directed it. Near the finals of the French Open, Oliver (John Garrett Greer), has initiated a meeting with Stan (Keilyn Durrel Jones), another player whose only Major win has been a French Open. But although Stan feels his chances to claim another title seem good, Oliver is seeking a 20th. “I have nineteen Major tennis championships to my name,” he tells Stan, “more than any other person on Earth…but, if I don’t get twenty, then it’s like I’ve failed somehow.” He is therefore, asking Stan to throw the match, and Stan resists, although he’s interested in the monetary objective.
As an academic argument, Break Point has some interest. There is truth in the observation that fans put weighty expectations on their sports heroes, even if the spider-and-fly discussion that follows isn’t dramatically persuasive. What LaBute leaves out of the equation is the innate drive of sportsmen. Lance Armstrong’s name comes up, but Armstrong cheated in order to make himself physically able to win. It simply rings false that Oliver, with 19 wins, would propose that Stan throw a match, or indeed, risk all his endorsements.
Still, variable as the results may be, Kandel is to be commended for keeping this important venue for short-form theater flourishing. It is worth the effort.
Throughline Artists’ production of Summer Shorts 2017 is playing at 59E59 Theatres (59 E. 59th St., between Park and Madison) through Sept. 2. Series A and B are presented in repertory. For calendar, tickets, and information, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit 59e59.org.