In an evening of shorts you never know what you might encounter. In the Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Series C Marathon of One-Acts not everything clicks all the time but it’s nice to get introduced to new writers, actors you are unfamiliar with, and plays that convert you into fans in an instant.
Stephen Brown’s The Tourists is so perfectly balanced in writing, performance, and direction you might actually believe Paris awaits you just outside the boundaries of this set. It is not an idealized Paris or some movie version of the City of Lights, but a Paris I’ve personally visited. It’s just a city, full of tourists, that’s over-exaggerated in your imagination and can never quite live up to whatever experience you have of it. It’s fine and you’re a little disappointed.
In Brown’s Paris, two forty-something best friends from Tennessee are coming to the end of their vacation and the pressure to make their last night there count is mounting. Peggy (Helen Coxe) married young and is now divorced. She is learning to be a person in the world later in life and these trips with her friend have been her gateway to that. Debra (Talaura Harris) is getting married for the first time upon her return. This trip is a last hurrah for the friends who might not get a chance to do this again.
But Debra is wiped out from sightseeing and wants an adventure, possibly even a fling for this night. Peggy is overwhelmed by the closing window of opportunity and is trying to make this all perfect. Enter Dmetri (Marshall Taylor Thurman) the handsome, single hotel worker who brings them their room service. Dmetri bemoans the struggles of dating but Debra tells him, “you would slay in Tennessee.” Suddenly you have a scenario that is about to get spicy.
Brown does not trade on stereotypes. The abs-fab Dmetri is an actual person. The loud and messy Debra is more sensitive than she lets on. The tidy and super-sensitive Peggy is stronger than she realizes. Brown is not here for the cheap laughs. The set-up may be funny but he’s respectful of his characters and their humanity. Director Courtney Ulrich also lets the comedy unfold naturally.
Coxe is full of nervous chatter and lets loose a swallowed, scared laugh when things get uncomfortable. Harris physically expresses so much of Debra’s character through movement. She hurls herself on the hotel bed, wriggles her tired feet, shakes and shivers over Dmetri, and rapaciously eyes him across a bite of her waffle.
Brown’s empathetic portrait of aging, complex female friendship, and how we still grow as adults is so richly crafted that I might look more kindly on the American tourists on the subway around me during my commute. Finding yourself and a worthy companion to spend time with is a lifelong journey.
I’m ready to see all Stephen Brown has to write in the future.
Kate Attwell chooses an ambitious topic for her short: the return of Jesus Christ. In Jesus in Manhattan, Jesus is a young woman who calls forth the world to witness her miracles in Central Park. Attwell uses overlapping vignettes to create the scenario and the unfolding events. Director Linsay Firman sits the actors on benches around the stage and they step forth for their scenes, playing multiple characters. It takes a few scenes to get your bearings as to what is happening. It is unclear if these nameless characters appear only once or if they return. The characterizations are less what the play is about than the situation they depict.
We get glimpses of what might happen if this young woman was the herald for an end of the old way of life and the start of something new. Her acolytes speak of a “new equality” that would reign but one must enter a hole in Central Park to experience it (maybe not the best plan but certainly a good test for skeptics). Her presence sparks a crisis of immigration as many are called forth to see her and be touched by her. Naturally some film agents want to sign her. Gun owners panic. Border control becomes even more heated than it is today.
While the play sets a particularly ominous mood and is fascinating meditation on a topic few think about, the production’s murkiness never goes away. But the atmosphere of fear, liberation, and exultation are sharp and it’s a subject worth this theatrical exploration.
Cindy Im gives a strong, precise comedic performance as Grace an avid bird watcher in Central Park accosted by the bird curious Youni (Soomi Kim) in Lloyd Suh’s short play Mandarin Duck. As someone who has dipped her feet in birding culture, I’m here to say that Im captures that hobbying enthusiasm well–eager, upbeat, staring off into the trees full of perpetual anticipation even as the light of the day starts to vanish.
Both women are seeking something from an encounter with the famous, rare avian. While the creature has special meaning to both, it’s hard for them to articulate exactly why. For Youni the idea of something alone and unusual in a place it doesn’t quite fit in but beckons to be seen mirrors her own feelings about herself. Grace, slightly less self-aware, sees her own parallels when Youni talks about it.
Suh’s play speaks a little too directly to this symbolism. In a longer format, these women might get to explore these questions of identity and visibility without the hurriedness or the explicitness seen here. They are women who have something to say and are worth listening to.
With bustles, crystal glasses, and giant hats full of perched birds we know we are in a Gilded Age parlor in Julia Specht’s play i believe in a republic in which money has a great deal to say. But the bluntness of the haves and have-nots is heavily hammered in this play.
Class warfare need not be subtle but here it threatens any character work or meaning. Mrs. Vanderbilt is terrible without her making her maid eat the food spilled on the floor off the floor without using her hands. The decadent styling and extreme behavior screams out for broad comedy but the maid’s personal, serious monologue pleas between these scenes says otherwise. The tonal dissonance is not resolved by director Jamie Richards.
Unfortunately some plays you can tell from the moment where they start exactly where they will end.
Everything you think will happen in France-Luce Benson’s play Fall, a sentimental story about mothers, daughters, and the sacrifices of immigrants, happens. While the cast does a fine job of portraying it, the characters exist to give the speeches they give. So nothing feels quite natural or earned.