The Playwright's New Clothes

For the critic in search of a catchy opening paragraph, a title like Israel Horovitz's New Shorts is a terrible temptation. The inevitable parallel, of course, is to "The Emperor's New Clothes," in which the titular head of state is allowed to walk naked before a baffled and tittering public that is too afraid to tell him his new "clothes" exist only in his mind. Horovitz is not an emperor, but he is a significant and well-established playwright who has generously agreed to collaborate with a scrappy, young Off-Off Broadway company for a season of new work. My suspicion upon entering the theater—particularly given confusion over who was supposed to tear tickets, a late start, and similar telltale symptoms of a disorganized opening night—was that the production was not going to live up to the script's potential. I fully expected to give a supportive review, forgiving the foibles of a company in over its head while praising the new work of a sometimes neglected figure in American drama.

Instead, Barefoot Theater Company surprised me with an evening of consistently strong performances that tended to outshine a series of disappointing plays. If the emperor has no clothes, as the hook-seeking critic wants to write, then the playwright has no shorts.

Typically, though, the truth is a little more subtle than that. The nine short plays that make up this new evening of theater are not bad by any stretch of the imagination. They are sometimes funny, sometimes infuriating, sometimes touching, and sometimes challenging.

"The Bridal Play" explores the inner secrets of a roomful of wedding-goers by juxtaposing their words to one another with a series of interior monologues. "Affection in Time" is meta-theater cum science fiction, a message from a playwright in a distant time. "The Fat Guy Gets the Girl" is pretty much what it sounds like, only sweeter. "Beirut Rocks" traps several students in a hotel during the recent Israel-Lebanon conflict, their diversity accommodating an uncomfortable allegory about regional and world politics.

In "Audition Play," an Off-Off Broadway director gives a single mother a second chance to tap-dance her way through an Actors' Equity showcase. "The Hotel Play" finds a jilted "other woman" falling for a charming male prostitute. "Inconsolable" is a poetic meditation on loss and desperation. "Cat Lady" is a character study of an aging woman with a fragmented past. "The Race Play," like "The Bridal Dance," brings all nine actors onstage, this time as celebrity runners at a charity race.

Most of these short plays are well done, but none of them lives up to the promise of Horovitz's Line or Park Your Car in Harvard Yard, or The Indian Wants the Bronx, or any of the other plays (and screenplays) that have emerged from his career and made him, as his biography in the program trumpets, "the most-produced American playwright in French theater history." "Not bad" isn't what one expects from a playwright with such a pedigree.

What Israel Horovitz's New Shorts seems to be is a series of classroom exercises by someone much further along in his craft and his career than the typical playwriting student. Indeed, one can imagine Mr. Horovitz, who has frequently taught both playwriting and screenwriting at such prestigious venues as Columbia University, giving a series of "what if" scenarios to his students, mixing and matching formal restrictions and requiring a finished, 10-minute result by the end of the week. Wouldn't it be tempting, sometimes, for the professor/playwright to take part in such exercises himself?

While the pace sometimes lagged, resulting in a somewhat longer run time than the advertised 90 minutes, the production itself was mostly charming. Nine actors, arranging themselves in various configurations to play the multitude of roles demanded by nine very different plays, met the demands of the evening with energy, grace, and charm.

Both Michael LoPorto and Horovitz himself directed their portions of the production with efficiency and intelligence, allowing their actors to shine but wisely steering them clear of self-indulgent histrionics. The nature of the show meant that design elements had to be kept to a minimum, but the creative team all worked within its considerable constraints to create a fluid production design that felt minimal by design rather than because of financial limitations.

Still, despite the considerable charms of "The Hotel Play" and "The Race Play" and the intentionally controversial and agitating politics of "Beirut Rocks," Israel Horovitz's New Shorts doesn't add up to much more than a series of thematic and formal experiments by a playwright treading water between projects of more substance.

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