The Summer Shorts Series B at 59E59 Theaters, presented by Throughline Artists, showcases three plays that each, in some way, deal with the unbridgeable gulf that can separate people in relationships, whether marriage or friendship.
The evening gets off to a shaky start, with the plodding and tedious Lucky, by Sharr White, which tells the story of Phil (Blake DeLong), a World War II veteran who mysteriously returns to his hometown after a six-year disappearance, and his long-pining wife, Meredith (Christine Spang), who accosts him in his motel room. Or, rather, doesn’t really accost him: they talk around the issue in stilted stop-and-start dialogue, with Phil mostly offering “I don’t know” as a response, until this style is dropped and Phil lays everything out in the final minutes, weeping and saying things like “Everything seems so wrong.” Neither inflection feels right or naturalistic. The play is both unbelievable (might not Meredith have a bit more to say about her husband’s completely unexplained six-year hiatus?) and utterly predictable (the “revelation” that Phil has been in a psychiatric hospital—“I cracked up,” he says, as though the audience will never see it coming).
The actors do what they can with the material, but are not aided by either the script or J. J. Kandel’s direction: there’s a frustrating lack of movement or interaction, and some minor but puzzling details, such as Phil’s never wiping the shaving cream off his face for the entirety of the play despite having a towel in his hand.
The second play is Nancy Bleemer’s Providence, directed by Ivey Lowe; it’s a humorous though melancholy look at a seemingly happy marriage. Michael (Jake Robinson) and Renee (Blair Lewin) try to get some sleep in Michael’s childhood room while visiting his family in North Providence, R.I., on the eve of Michael’s sister’s wedding to Pauly (Nathan Wallace). Renee needs Tampax, but there are no open drugstores nearby; Pauly, a nervous wreck about his pending nuptials, hears conversation and enters the room. He wants advice: he is surrounded in life by mute couples and wants to know what Michael and Renee talk about. Fissures in Michael and Renee’s relationship begin to appear: for example, they disagree on the “What do you talk about?” question; it emerges that Renee had doubts on their wedding day, while Michael says he did not; and if the Catholic Michael believes in the Christian afterlife, he doesn’t seem particularly concerned that he won’t be spending eternity with his Jewish wife.
Sometimes the play operates in a broad, sitcom-like style, and Michael’s character isn’t particularly well-drawn. But the ending is full of poignant doubt, as Renee, with Michael asleep next to her, wistfully plays the game that the two of them usually play together, a kind of joint autobiography translated into fairy-tale language: “Once upon a time,” she repeats, looking at the man next to her, as the lights fade.
Neil LaBute’s tightly focused and gripping Appomattox, nimbly directed by Duane Boutté, concludes the evening. It’s an “issue” play in the LaBute vein of raising uncomfortable questions, yet the characters never seem like only mouthpieces. Frank (Ro Boddie) and Joe (Jack Mikesell) have a Sunday tradition of eating lunch and tossing the football in the park. They are friends, “bros” even. Frank is black and Jack is white, and when Jack talks rapturously about Georgetown students allotting a small portion of their tuition to go toward reparations for the families of the 272 slaves that Georgetown sold in 1838, Frank expresses some skepticism. The banter builds toward a heated and complex discussion, unflinching in its honesty about U.S. history (“the absolute fucking smoldering apocalypse that is our country’s history,” as Frank says), and wondering about the impossibility of anything resembling atonement for sins so gigantic.
When Joe’s white guilt and supposed good intentions run into Frank’s reality check, the whole status of their friendship comes into question—specifically, the lies people have to tell themselves to keep historical traumas at bay. Frank and Joe are not badly behaving in the way LaBute characters often are: Joe is naïve and desperate to expiate his guilt, and Frank’s anger feels informed and righteous, though in the play’s least believable touch he briefly crosses the line into taunting cruelty. But Appomattox is a strong ending to the program, offering character-driven language, taut drama, and unresolvable conflict.
Summer Shorts Series B runs through Aug.31 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E 59th St). Evening performances are at 7:15 p.m. and matinees are at 2:15 p.m., but the schedule varies; for exact days and times visit 59e59.org. Tickets are available by calling (646) 892-7999 or visiting the website.