Review by Kathleen Campion
The Summer Shorts are on again at 59E59, the East side’s off-Broadway jewel of a performance space. Producers select six new American plays and then divide the run into two separate evenings of three each — Series A and Series B — that run in rotating repertory. It’s often a remarkable sampling of what’s fresh and inventive in theater.
The three one-act plays in Series A are of the Goldilocks variety: one is rather thin; one, far too dense; and the third, just right.
The powerhouse — just right — play is Jack. Playwright Melissa Ross is fearless. Her two characters, George (Aaron Roman Weiner) and Maggie (Claire Karpen), inhabit the stage, each defending a section of their battle-scarred and now-ended, marital struggle. Their exchanges, ostensibly about the sudden loss of their beloved dog, Jack, are the stuff of all exchanges that men and women engage in when they have loved and lost. The fight is just below the surface; it is raw and easily summoned.
The script might be a master class in balance. The two characters throw the action back and forth; first, it is Maggie who is an emotional vortex. She is enraged with George, lashing out, not always playing fair. She dominates; he reacts. She thrusts; he parries. And then, with a deft, Philippe Petit move, Ross shifts the power to George, giving him a barrage of laugh-out-loud lines that steady the ship and put the audience in his pocket.
And here’s what’s fun about that: This George — Aaron Roman Weiner — is the understudy.
Unless you come to see a show because your favorite actor’s in it, you are likely unmoved by the flimsy sheet slipped into your program that says, “ The role of X will be played by someone else in tonight’s performance.” You know the understudy cannot have the intimacy with the part that the primary actor has, so you might cut him some slack. No need here; Weiner is winning and absolutely authentic. I believed him every minute.
The script offers a lot of room for the new guy, in that George, the character, has an odd, tell in his speech pattern, a repetitive tic that reads as profoundly genuine. I suspect playwright Ross knows someone who does that stutter of phrase, and now we do too.
Second on the bill is Playing God, which has the feel of sketch comedy. Character actor Bill Buell (God) knows his way around a stage, to be sure, but might spend some rehearsal time nailing his lines. He plays God, intent on punishing an entitled, squash-playing atheist (Dana Watkins). Playwright Alan Zweibel is an accomplished comedy writer — five Emmys — think SNL, Curb Your Enthusiasm, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. I’m a fan. But it feels like he called this one in. Playing God serves as the palette cleanser as we move on to The Acolyte.
Novelist and screenwriter Graham Moore invites us into Ayn Rand’s (Orlagh Cassidy) sitting room for drinks with her and her husband Frank (Ted Koch), and a young couple of her acquaintance. The young man, Nathaniel Branden (Sam Lilja) is her student and admirer. His wife Barbara ( Bronte England-Nelson), armed with her Ph.D. in philosophy, is her antagonist. Moore’s script is giving us the back story on the Rand/Brandon symbiotic relationship that leads to the blossoming of both careers and which eventually flies apart with public denunciations and recriminations. But this play is about the beginning.
Moore feeds us a lot of Plato and Aristotle, presumably to ground his audience for Rand’s Objectivism ( in case you hadn’t brushed up on same before taking your seat).
Cassidy nails Rand, who is by turns charming and oppressive. England-Nelson manages to slug it out with her. And Moore gives Frank some laugh lines to lighten the mood, but, as he becomes increasingly pathetic, you are less inclined to laugh. Oddly, Nathaniel, who would become significant in Rand’s real life feels shadowy here. Pressing real life into stage characters has its pitfalls. The play seemed overlong to me, but I can see why Moore might worry about how much philosophy 101 the audience sat down with.
JACK – written by Melissa Ross, directed by Mimi O’Donnell. With Aaron Roman Weiner (George) and Claire Karpen (Maggie).
PLAYING GOD – written by Alan Zweibel, directed by Maria Mileaf. With
Bill Buell (God) , Flora Diaz (Barbara Grarber) , Dana Watkins (Doctor Fisher) and Welker White (God’s Assistant).
ACOLYTE – written by Graham Moore directed buy Alexander Dinelaris. With Orlagh Cassidy (Ayn Rand), Ted Koch (Frank O’Connor), Sam Lilja (Nathaniel Branden) , and Bronte England-Nelson (Barbara Branden).
Produced by Throughline Artists at 59E59 Theaters at 59 East 59th Street in Manhattan, throughSeptember 2. Runtime: 1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission.