By Robert O'Hara, Abby Rosebrock and Chris Bohjalian
Directed by Robert O'Hara, Jess Chayes and Alexander Dinelaris
Produced by Throughline Artists
Off Broadway, Short Plays
Runs through 8.31.18
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street
by Ken Kaissar on 7.31.18
K.K. Glick and Grace Experience in Grounded, part of Summer Shorts 2018. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: Three one-acts that speak to the current moment.
It’s always interesting to see how the current social and political climate is reflected on stage. I’m sure none of the three playwrights featured in Series A of this year’s Summer Shorts at 59E59 were on a mission to comment on Trump’s America. And yet all three plays are bound together with themes of people being trapped by their circumstances, facing an uncertain and potentially dangerous future, and in two of three plays, the characters’ problems are products of their own poor choices and judgment. If that doesn’t sound like America in the summer of 2018, I don’t know what does.
In Robert O’Hara’s satire The Living Room, the last two living white people are captured by a black playwright and forced to perform in a living room play day after day. The play doesn’t require anything terribly ominous or dangerous of them, other than the fact that they are stripped of their freedom and ability to exist in the offstage world. Judy (Kate Buddeke), an older women, is afraid to challenge the situation in which she finds herself, and is content to behave and go along with the arrangement. But Frank (Adam Langdon), a younger man, wonders what would happen if he just left.
O’Hara’s script is a tad more aggressive than the other two pieces. While it’s comical to watch the two characters tolerate their unfortunate situation, there’s not a whole lot they can do to improve it, and so the play remains somewhat stagnant. This dramaturgical flaw may have been lessened had O’Hara not directed his own play, perhaps benefitting from a collaborator who might demand more action from the script. But The Living Room serves as a great warm-up act to whet our appetites for the next two pieces, both of which pack a punch.
Abby Rosebrock’s Kenny’s Tavern seems to take place somewhere red and rural. Two educators at a local magnet school, who are obviously not from this small town, enjoy a drink and each other’s company. Ryan (Stephen Guarino), the principal, and Laura (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie), a teacher, are having an affair, which seems to be losing its charm, as flings are wont to do. As they engage in their final row, they dismiss and condescend to their sixteen-year-old server Jaelyn (Mariah Lee), who has been rejected from the magnet school multiple times and who states that she would “cut off [her] arms to go there.”
Under the direction of Jess Chayes, the power of Kenny’s Tavern comes from an unspoken juxtaposition between the privileged philandering educators and the young girl who wants nothing more than to find a way out of her one-horse town, but is likely stuck there forever. While the love affair keeps the conflict alive, it’s really Jaelyn’s story that kept me involved. The tragedy of watching two educators snidely dismiss a young kid who could genuinely use their help is heart-wrenching. Huge props to Lee for making Jaelyn's story abundantly clear even though she is only onstage for about 20% of the play. Kenny’s Tavern is the perfect representation of how Obama’s America—as embodied by the privileged educators—made the uneducated Jaelyns of the world feel dismissed and left behind.
The final play—Chris Bohjalian’s Grounded—is my favorite, wonderfully compelling on both literal and metaphorical levels. Emily (Grace Experience) is a young flight attendant who is terrified of flying. “How in the world did you end up doing this?” her coworker Karen (K.K. Glick) queries. Emily got her job at the behest of her life coach who thought she should confront her fears. “I think your life coach was kind of a dick,” Karen concludes. And as the play presses on we learn just how much of a dick he really was.
Director Alexander Dinelaris does a wonderful job of keeping the play focused, amidst all of the non sequiturs and realistic interruptions—from the captain and passengers—that Bohjalian peppers throughout the script. And Grace Experience delivers the acting grand finale of the night by actively working through her fears and sorrows without ever falling into the trap of indulging them. Although her eyes often glisten with a hint of mist, she keeps the sobs at bay.
Set designer Rebecca Lord-Surratt provides a beautiful frame in which all three plays shine, as well as the finer details that infuse each one with life. While none of the plays provide explicit statements on the country, each one subtly resonates with our current moment while also keeping us focused on the immediate reality of the characters. These plays don’t scream through a bullhorn, but you’ll find great meaning if you dare to lean forward and listen to the whisper in your ear.
(Summer Shorts Series A plays at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, through September 1, 2018. The running time is 95 minutes with no intermission. Performances (of either Series A or B) are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:15; Saturdays and Sundays at 2:15 and 7:15. Series A and Series B run in rep; see website for exact schedule. Tickets are $35 (24.50 for 59E59 members) and are available at 59e59.org or by calling 212-279-4200.)
Summer Shorts Series A is by Robert O'Hara, Abby Rosebrock, and Chris Bohjalian. Directed by Robert O'Hara, Jess Chayes, and Alexander Dinelaris. Set Design by Rebecca Lord-Surratt. Costume Design by Amy Sutton. Lighting Design by Greg MacPherson. Sound Design and Music by Nick Moore. Props Design by Zach Brecheen and Gestynee Spieker. Projection Design by Joshua Langman. Stage Manager is Jenna R. Lazar.
The cast is Adam Langdon, Kate Buddeke, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Stephen Guarino, Mariah Lee, Grace Experience and K.K. Glick.