Pale Imitations

I’m not quite sure why some newer playwrights presumptuously put their plays on bills along with even the lesser ones of acknowledged masters, but it’s a bad idea. Even if these playwrights don’t overtly suggest that their plays can stand alongside classics, it nonetheless appears that this is precisely what they’re doing. Almost always, it’s an unequal match. This is so even if the play is “classically inspired,” which is how Eric Parness, Artistic Director of Resonance Ensemble, describes three new plays sandwiched around and between short plays by Beckett and Chekhov. The Ensemble’s Reflections is an evening of five “short plays” that could try the patience of the kindliest of theatergoers. Two of the newer playwrights could learn a thing or two about economy and succinctness from the masters. In Ian Strasfogel’s light and ultimately ingratiating "Compromise," a pretentious producer, annoyingly played by the vampy Christine Verleny, tries to convince a conventional Beckettian director (Bill Fairbairn) to set a production of Happy Days in Rwanda because, she opines, Samuel Beckett never really “got it.” Throughout their exchange, a statue of Beckett makes faces at them: approving ones for the Director and nasty ones for the Producer. In the end the Director agrees, against his better judgment, to mount a production set in Afghanistan, and the statue has something to say about that.

Next up is "Catastrophe," a slight and historically over-analyzed, yet effective later play by Beckett himself, written for Vaclav Havel, and around which "Compromise" has been modeled. In "Catastrophe" a fur-wearing, domineering Director (David Arthur Bachrach) overrules every idea his Assistant (Nicole Godino) has regarding the arrangement of the Protagonist (Grant James Varjas), a mute man on a platform, completely at their mercy. The Director is not satisfied until the shivering man has been nearly stripped. The play is an allegory of totalitarian government, stripping its cowed citizenry of their identities. Yet, the play contains a small and successful surprise: the man looks up at the audience, if only for a moment.

Alvin Eng’s overlong "Their Town" is mostly pointless. Based nominally on Thorton Wilder’s Our Town, it’s the story of Harry Cloud (Todd Butera) and Terry Cave (Bill Fairbairn), two irritating ex-American Communist party members who meet again in the afterlife, replete with heavenly garb. In life they stabbed each others' backs and sold each other out; now they’re trying to find atonement, or “at-one-ment,” as Terry not so cleverly quips ad nauseum. I soon lost interest in this boring and hollow story of Harry and Terry’s karmic debt, and so did the man snoring quietly next to me. Mercifully, a 10-minute intermission followed.

Anton Chekhov’s "Swan Song" comes next. The play is a sketch of a drunk, elderly actor (Bill Fairbairn) who bemoans having dedicated his life to the theater and fears the approach of death with no family to support him. It’s a minor work that still packs a punch as the old man slowly regains his bearings and realizes he had no other mission in life quite as fitting as his chosen profession.

Wrapping up the evening is Michael Feingold’s smart but ultimately ridiculous "What Happened Then," a play which takes place in the early 1700s and tells, or at least attempts to tell, the story of two Englishmen whose tragic lives come together and apart, through unbelievable twists of fate, over the course of two decades. Mr. Feingold has a gift for the era’s vernacular, and his characters are convincing even if their stories are not. As Mr. Feingold piled on the unlikeliest of scenarios with a straight face, some in the audience snickered and I was reminded of the far-fetched tales of Commander McBragg from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Should Mr. Feingold cultivate the obvious comic potential of this story, it might be a better play.

As you might expect, the offerings that come out on top in Reflections are the likely suspects. Short and to the point, the plays by Beckett and Chekhov are perfect examples of economy and conciseness. Those of Mr. Eng and Mr. Feingold are not. Mr. Parness’ direction of these plays is confident and professional, but it can’t help the material. Colleen Kesterson’s costume design is one of the more convincing aspects of this production. Sarah B. Brown’s movable stage design is serviceable and frequently clever. All in all, though, I cannot recommend that readers see this production.

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