A Pirandellian lark and two plays with feminist concerns constitute Summer Shorts (Series A), the invaluable annual presentation of one-acts at 59E59 Theaters by Throughline Artists.
The opener, The Living Room, finds author/director Robert O’Hara in a playful mood. A middle-aged couple, Frank (Joel Reuben Ganz) and Judy (Kate Buddeke), sit watching what is apparently a royal wedding on television. There’s a blackout, and when the lights come up the pair are eating takeout. Suddenly Judy breaks the fourth wall: “You are probably used to this mechanism of blackouts and lights up, but to us it is rather disconcerting,” she tells the audience. “All of a sudden, the lights are shut off and then the next thing we know we’re in a different part of the stage doing something completely unrelated to what we were doing before.” The Man chimes in: “Where this food comes from is anyone’s guess. Why we are eating now is also anyone’s guess.”
In short order they are complaining about “him.” In O’Hara’s satire, a mashup of Pirandello and Being John Malkovich, the characters’ beef is not with God, as it may seem at first, but with the playwright himself. They are inside his imagination, the last white people on earth, and they have some insights about their creator. “He likes boys,” says Frank. “More than that, he likes watching us say wicked things,” adds Judy. “He figures that we will look stupid as we say them.”
As director, O’Hara calibrates the comedy with a sense of unease, amiably throwing darts at himself. Why doesn’t he appear in the play? “He’d have to find a black actor to portray him, and that would eat into the little faggot’s profits!” says Judy. But he gives his own grievances equal time: “Why isn’t he writing for two black people, who needs to see two more white people on a stage anywhere ever?” Frank exclaims. Ganz and Buddeke convey their characters’ discomfort even as they capitalize on such comic moments.
In Abby Rosebrock’s Kenny’s Tavern, a couple who meet on the patio of a North Carolina dive bar casually speak about state politics, the 2016 election, and their teaching duties, giving little indication of the feminist issues that eventually come to the fore. Laura (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) and Ryan (Stephen Guarino) are both employed at a magnet school. He’s a teacher of English—The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie—while Laura has sway on an admissions review board; their server Jaelyn (Mariah Lee), who is the title character’s niece, has applied there and failed to get in.
But the play is less about teaching and more about an affair that has come to an end. Under director Jess Chayes, the story unfolds gradually and organically. The married and deceptive Ryan turns out to have been more than Laura’s professional colleague, and Laura has decided she must leave North Carolina and begin a new career and life elsewhere. It’s left to her to offer a promise of sisterhood to Jaelyn, who needs to restart her life as well.
Something akin to sisterhood also runs through Chris Bohjalian’s Grounded. Two flight attendants in first class are working together for the first time. Grace Experience is Emily, flying her first transatlantic trip. K.K. Glick is Karen, a seen-it-all veteran with a knack for pranks. But Karen, it turns out, is floored when the younger woman opens up. Emily has been having an affair with her life coach, who is her father’s best friend and married. Oh, and the affair began when she was 15!
Under the direction of Alexander Dinelaris, the flow of comedy and seriousness is well modulated, but Bohjalian’s position on the affair is unsettlingly ambivalent. Karen’s insistence that “it can’t ever be consensual when you’re fifteen” is a familiar one, but Emily has a different view, and Experience delivers it persuasively.
“Sure, maybe his life deserves to auger nose-first into a mountain,” Emily says. “I can see that. But his wife’s life? My parents’? I told you what it would do to them. I told you. He also has two kids, one of whom is a daughter my age. In her eyes, her old man is a pretty great dad. Think of what it would do to her. Think of that.” The tension between Karen’s intrusive insistence that Emily see a lawyer, and Emily’s composed resistance, is sustained superbly.
Summer Shorts 2018 runs through Sept. 1 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.). Two series, featuring three one-act plays in each, will play in rotating repertory. Evening performances are at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; matinees are at 2:15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Single tickets are $35. To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit 59e59.org.