BOTTOM LINE: Some big names offer up a mixed bag of short plays that when put together equal more than the sum of their parts.
Four diverting, mostly accomplished pieces make up 59E59 Theatre's festival of new American plays, which are almost completely disconnected, yet somehow come together to make an overall satisfying night of entertainment. Without Neil Labute’s final contribution, however, I am not sure I could say that alone any piece was too rousing or complex.
The first play, Carrie and Francine, for example, is written by 17-year old Ruby Rae Spiegel, and as to be unfortunately expected, it starts at a sleepover and ends with a wistful look toward the future. The dialogue between the two pre-titular pre-teens is fun and dynamic, but the content leaves a personal touch to be desired. A tired Catcher in the Rye reference acts as a frame for the play, the first part of which consists mostly of Francine quizzing Carrie on kissing, sex, and the winning methods of bulimia and anorexia, subjects that make it come off as little more than an R-rated Degrassi. It has an impressive rhythm for someone of Spiegel’s age, and the young actresses in the roles both strive to toe the line between satire and reality, but if you’re not looking to give age-adjusted accolades, you will feel something lacking. Extra credit, however, for Carrie’s line “Did you do the math homework?” while breaking Francine’s hymen in for a boy Francine likes.
Christopher Durang’s three-monologue piece Triple Trouble With Love acquits itself somewhat better as Durang has the maturity to know he doesn’t have to play provocateur at all times. The first two monologues are character-centric, sweet affairs, so that by the time we get to Jackie (Beth Hoyt), the ex-wife of meth addicts, heroin addicts, and crack addicts, we can feel at ease enough to laugh along. There is also real theatrical ingenuity in Jackie’s continued forgetfulness of where she is in her story. Still, in the same way Spiegel seems a hair too young to tackle her subjects and goes unnecessarily sharp, Durang feels a hair too old and goes unnecessarily soft. All three monologues star people who are deserving of love if they can just gosh-darn find the right person, which is a boring sight three times over, and the actors, while full of creative idiosyncrasies, lack an overall edge.
Neil LaBute’s piece The New Testament, however, is like the baby bear’s porridge of the night that tastes just right. Writing about something right in his wheelhouse, LaBute sets up a fantastically dangerous situation and wrings every little bit he can out of it, both funny and dramatic. In it, an Asian actor (James Chen) is invited to lunch with an acerbic writer (Jeff Binder) and peace-making producer (Mando Alvarado) who are trying to get him to quit the project. An avant-garde director cast the actor as Jesus while the Writer was out of town, and now that he’s back he is totally against it, in the most outrageously up-front, politically incorrect way. Binder is eye-poppingly incredible as the insufferable man who writes “beautiful words” but has absolutely no filter for his mouth. His sparring partner Chen is an equal talent who is able to make us believe that someone would sit there and take insults like that he has a “Pearl Harbor grin,” without smacking the coconut dessert that sits between them in the writer’s face.
The New Testament also takes risks by giving us a sound view for the Writer’s side in the argument, and having the Actor not necessarily disagree, or come up with a moralistic absolute that counters his view. The resolution to the no-win situation is more of a joke than it maybe could have been, but Labute is wise enough to know this is the way it had to be other than picking a side. The play becomes more about people than ideas, and in that way the way the Writer is screwed at the end is satisfying in regards to his personal unctuousness but open enough in regards to leaving his dogma. Where the coconut dessert eventually gets thrown is the perfect solution, something sorely missing in the other plays’ central quandaries.(Summer Shorts 5, Series A plays at 59E59 Theater, 59 E 59th Street, through September 3, 2011. Performances are Wednesdays at 7:15PM, Fridays at 8:15PM, Saturdays at 2:15PM and 8:15PM and Sunday at 3:15PM. Tickets are $18 and are available at 59E59.org or by calling 212.279-4200.)