Writers: Daniel Reitz, Neil LaBute, Albert Innaurato
Directors: Paul Schnee, Maria Mileaf, Jack Hofsiss
Reviewer: Jonathan Alexandratos
If just one out of the three plays in Summer Shorts Series A was a home run, Series B ups the festival’s batting average. The opener, Daniel Reitz’s “Napoleon in Exile,” is the evening’s best. The play, which ingeniously incorporates the computer game Minecraft into its tale, tells the story of Cory, a 25-year-old “on the spectrum,” who finds out his mother has cancer. Over the course of its 20 minutes, the outstanding Will Dagger (Corey) and Henny Russell (Evelyn, Corey’s mother), take us on a heartfelt rollercoaster of laughs and tragedy. The piece is a great vehicle for Mr. Dagger’s talent, as he gives the audience an honest, empathetic, beautifully flawed Corey. Henny Russell uses every bit of the work Mr. Dagger does to inform her choices that always avoid caricature and create one of the best examples of maternity in theatre. By the time the play reaches its climactic end, one truly feels as though he or she has been on a journey with these people, and that, in theatre, is the best of all possible outcomes. It is hard to praise Reitz enough for his truthful representation of a boy living with a mental disability and the complex love his mother feels for him.
Off to such a running start, it is hard not to wonder where Neil LaBute would take the evening. LaBute, through his “The Mulberry Bush,” does not take us to Reitz’s place of tender love, but to the equally thrilling territory of the paranoid, the criminal, the grey. “The Mulberry Bush” follows Bill (the amazing Victor Slezak) and Kip (J.J. Kandel in top form), two people who have sat down next to each other in the park on a clear, spring day. Bill does not know Kip. Kip knows Bill, however, because Bill is a child sex offender whose status is readily available on the Internet. Though Bill insists his criminal past is over, Kip cannot help but fear that Bill will attack his young son, who plays in that park all the time. What ensues is a conflict that makes the audience wonder who, exactly, to root for. This ambiguity is hard to pull off on stage, but Mr. LaBute, armed with two prime actors who know how to be truthful with precision, crafts his short play beautifully. Kip, too, is an interesting character for Mr. LaBute, who tends to show us the worst of masculinity. Here, Kip takes on the rôle of protector of the child, a rôle often feminized and attributed to the mother (recent film example might be The Blind Side; classic example that comes to mind is Rosemary’s Baby). While one has to decide if Kip’s increasingly violent (though still calm) approach is the higher ground, an exploration of the male who takes on this motherly cause is important. In the end, though, we are left with both men scarred (and, perhaps, scared) and the idea that fire can never really fight fire.
Then there is an intermission.
Take the intermission. And run. The last play, a sex farce set in a church that Albert Innaurato has titled “Doubtless” (heh, get it, it’s like Doubt, but not!), could not be made worse even if a pack of wild, hormonally-enraged baboons were released into the theatre midway through the piece. Let’s review the plot, which can only be marked by the audience slowly leaving the theatre as the play went on. About 15 seconds in, it is obvious that the priests at this church are having an offstage orgy. Two nuns enter in the throes of ass-grabbing love. But it’s real ass-grabbing, not the fake ass-grabbing that the priests are surely off doing. This was when the first person left. It was the person who accompanied this reviewer to the show. He left through the back door – this reviewer’s request, as it is never, ever the actors’ faults. Shortly thereafter, an audience member said loudly, “That is so not funny…” Next, it turns out the nuns need to wait until the dudes are done with their offstage, multiple-partner copulation because they have all the money, and if these nuns are going to make a break for it, they need to steal their dough before they do. As they’re saying more lines related to this, “Jesus,” who is a vampire, awakens from a coffin. He is shirtless, sparkly, and dressed in all black. He does some magicky stuff while the lead, older nun uses some phrases that might offend not just the religious, not just the spiritual, but anyone concerned with the crafting of a decent piece of dialogue. This is when a bank of three audience members exited the theatre. They did not have a reviewer with them to request otherwise, so they used the front exit, which required them to pass in front of the stage. Which they did. Without hesitation. Soon after, it turns out that Mother Theresa is a monster (no, an actual monster) and the head nun is a werewolf, which the younger nun must defeat. She does, and another audience member decides he’s had enough. He, too, uses the front exit. For the rest of the show, some people, “Jesus” included, sing showtunes and kiss and wear very little clothing. This causes the three people in front of me to squirm a bit and whisper to one another. This reviewer can infer what they’re saying, because the male of the group decided to shout, “That was painful!” as soon as the show ended. With the play rambling toward a close, 59E59 lost two more patrons in the front row: a husband-and-wife-type couple that seemed to finally realize that whatever domestic dispute that could await would be a better fate than one more minute of “Doubtless.” Finally, lights down, cue awkward claps, and we’re out. Make sense? Well, the playwright does note in his bio that this is the first play anyone has asked of him in 15 years. One might be tempted to recommend another 15.
Parody and satire are great, but they need a point. This “Doubtless” does not have. One can only hope that, in the best possible scenario, this was a John Cage-ian experiment to show that when an audience is hit with a 30-minute barrage of awful material, they become the show. It is their bond that becomes the drama. This reviewer doesn’t know the fellow who shouted, “That was painful!” but he felt a closeness with him – the closeness that neighbors who have never spoken share once they’ve both been put through an earthquake. Suddenly, there’s a bond. If “Doubtless” was supposed to make the audience realize the absurdity of God, though, let it be said that no play could push viewers closer to the All Mighty. That was exactly to whom we were thankful at the final blackout.
So Series B gives audiences two hits, and, focusing on those, one feels the sense of fulfilment. In fact, one hopes to see more characters like the brilliant ones Mr. Reitz and Mr. LaBute have created. One can only hope that future Summer Shorts will diversify their voices further, to include more women and minority writers. It is only through listening to the voices history has silenced that we can see our world for what it truly is. Summer Shorts may need to spend time seeking these voices, but the challenge of the task is no excuse for a lack of pursuit.