L-R: Sharina Martin, Cecil Blutcher in SHOWTIME BLUES. Photo by Gerry Goodstein

By Donna Herman

The biggest value in New York City theater right now is Ensemble Studio Theatre’s 36th Marathon of One-Act Plays.  There are three evenings of one-acts, Series A, B & C.  See one for $25, two for $40 or all three for $60.  I’ve seen Series A which includes Showtime Blues by France-Luce Benson, Blue Handed by David Zellnik, The Fork by Emily Chadwick Weiss, El Grande by Maggie Diaz Bofill, and How My Grandparents Fell In Love by Cary Gitter.  And I was so impressed with the consistent level of talent both on stage and behind the scenes, that I want to see Series B & C.  I’m sure you’ll feel the same way too.

First of all, kudos to the company for the way the evening was handled as a whole.  Although there were 5 different plays with 5 different writers, directors, casts and rehearsal stage managers, there was a single production team that worked on the whole evening.  Scenic Designer Jason Ardizzone-West did a wonderful job of designing the sectional, rolling, black, folding screen panels that, with the addition of a rolling set piece or two took us from the NYC subway, to an Upper West Side Apartment, to a Bronx apartment to a hat shop in Poland in 1933, swiftly and easily. The lighting by Greg MacPherson, created the various moods perfectly and sound designer John Salutz did a fabulous job with the NYC Subway noises (the unintelligible announcements got big laughs every time). Heather Carey’s costumes did a smashing job of taking us from today’s NYC subway, to 1933 Poland and back to the Bronx convincingly.

And it just goes to show that when the core is solid – the writing, acting & directing – you don’t need huge budgets and fancy effects to make a play work.  Showtime Blues by France-Luce Benson, the first one-act of the evening, is a perfect example.  It succeeds in being what the big Broadway acapella musical In Transit tried to be.  A story about real people in the subway, told truthfully with the help of music and dance.  Not a cliché in sight. Topical, funny, tense at moments, truthful, and really well performed not only by Sharina Martin as Ameria and Cecil Blutcher as Demetrius, but Josh Johnson’s tap dancing was stellar. Crisply directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, it was the perfect opening.

Blue Handed by David Zellnik is a short, 8 minute piece taken from real testimony of Israeli soldiers who patrolled a Palestinian area of Hebron.  It’s a poetic, memory piece about violence and guilt.  It’s haunting and disturbing, and frankly, I was glad it only lasted for 8 minutes.  Although there was no violence on stage, the acts described by 2 (Pepper Binkley), a soldier, and the memories of 1 (Shawn Randall), the interrogator, were vivid enough to make me cringe.  I’m a softie.

Smartly this was followed by The Fork by Emily Chadwick Weiss.  Although the pace could have been picked up a bit, the writing was crisp and witty in this piece about a grandma (Marcia Jean Kurtz) who announces that what she wants to do in retirement is to assassinate President Trump.  Her daughter (Dawn McGee) doesn’t take her seriously, and she says “Have I ever not done something I’ve set my mind to?” And the daughter replies, wryly “You’ve never tried to off a President before.” Grandma is undeterred “But I learned twitter!” It’s not all fluff, she’s thought long and hard about this and there is method behind the madness.

After the intermission, we were treated to Maggie Diaz Bofill’s El Grande.  A quick tale of three sisters who live together and put the “fun” in dysfunction. Adrienne (Laura Rivera) has taken up residence in the bathroom and won’t come out, or let Yoly (Christina Nieves), who REALLY has to go, in. Nor will she hand over Toni’s (Jamie Rezanour) beeping phone that she left in there. As the saying goes, if you don’t understand how a woman could both love her sister dearly and want to wring her neck at the same time, then you were probably an only child. The very end needs to be shaved, it’s anticlimactic and doesn’t add anything, but the rest of it is worth seeing.

The final one-act of the evening, How My Grandparents Fell In Love by Cary Gitter, was the perfect ending to a wonderful evening.  A love story (duh) set in a hat shop in 1933 Poland, the title isn’t as bad as it seems. If this were a full-length play I would definitely name it something else.  But as a one-act, it works.  The ultimate meet-cute in an improbable situation for two Jews at the beginning of WWII, we see their first two meetings and know the rest of the story. Eli Gelb as Charlie, the Polish immigrant to America, home to find a wife, and Lucy DeVito as Chava, the shop girl who aspires to go to college, are outstanding. We fall in love with them both from the first minute they meet and at the end, when Chava finally agrees to go out with Charlie and the play ends, the audience went crazy cheering and clapping.

Ensemble Studio Theatre’s 36th Marathon of One-Act Plays Series A:

Showtime Blues by France-Luce Benson, Directed by Steve H. Broadnax III

WITH: Sharina Martin (Ameria); Cecil Blutcher (Demetrius); Dylan Dawson (Police Officer); Josh Johnson (Breakdancer A); Wendell Bullen (Breakdancer B)

Bluehanded by David Zellnik, Directed by John Giampietro

WITH: Shawn Randall (1); Pepper Binkley (2)

The Fork by Emily Chadwick Weiss, Directed by Andrew Grosso

WITH: Marcia Jean Kurta (Joyce); Dawn McGee (Rachel); Keola Simpson (Al)

El Grande by Maggie Diaz Bonfill, Directed by Pam Berlin

WITH: Jamie Rezanour (Toni); Christina Nieves (Yoly); Laura Riveros (Adrienne)

How My Grandparents Fell In Love by Cary Gitter, Directed by Colette Robert

WITH: Lucy DeVito (Chava); Eli Gelb (Charlie)

Scenic Design by Jason Adizzone-West; Costume Design by Heather Carey; Lighting Design by Greg Macpherson; Sound Design by John Salutz; Production Stage Manager, Eileen Lalley.  Presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Radio Drama Network.  Performances of the Marathon, Series A through June 5th; Series B May 28th through June 26th; Series C June 10th through June 30th. For tickets visit: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/134