By Massimo Iacoboni

Debargo Sanyal and Curran Connor in Linus and Murphy. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

Inspired by the format in which Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill honed their craft, EST has held annual short-play marathons since 1977, breaking new ground by putting new and established writers together on the stage. David Mamet, Amy Herzog,  Julia Cho and John Guare have all premiered new works at the festival. This year’s 15 selections were chosen from 728 submissions, and are being presented across three different series from Sunday May 14 to Friday June 30. Here’s a review of Series A.

Down Cleghorn by Julia Specht, portrays an unintended family reunion between two sisters and their potty-mouthed mother, Deanna (Patricia Randell, in an overblown performance), who evidently had quite a few boyfriends around the house while her little girls were growing up. The action unfolds as Deanna shows up, unexpectedly, at Jezebel’s (the rather subdued Emily Jackson). The writing is tense, but it doesn’t quite find equivalent emotion in the performances. Accusations are leveled, bitter recriminations made, long-held secrets revealed and hurt feelings compounded, especially when the second sister, Frida, played effectively by Lauren Hines, arrives on the scene. Unfortunately, though, unbridled emotion does not automatically provide revealing insight, and even the final scene – in which the sisters reaffirm the strength of their bond – was staged a bit perfunctorily.

Falling Away, by Christopher Shinn, is an intensely written exchange between Tom (Charles Socarides) and Anna (Sara Bues) who met in a bar a few months earlier and fell in love. Alas, Anna is very much committed (somewhat inexplicably for such a young woman) to her current boyfriend – even though he’s out of work and very passive aggressive. Her dalliance with Tom has thus remained platonic, but the couple remain exquisitely connected. Nevertheless, hard choices are inescapable. While the writing is taut, the emotional nuances of the text might have been brought forth more effectively by older, more mature actors, able to better convey the gut-wrenching pathos of having to forsake true love.

A big, overactive puppy dog strikes up an unlikely friendship with a neighbor’s phlegmatic cat in Linus and Murray by Leah Nanako Winkler, performed with reckless exuberance by Curran Connor (Murray, the dog) and cool but sensual, manipulative detachment by Debargo Sanyal (Linus, the cat). Murray is all frenzied, unthinking energy: a constant worrier, he frets relentlessly about having peed on his owner’s carpet.  All Murray wants is to be loved and accepted, and his entire identity is centered around his owner’s feelings for him. Wonderfully self-possessed Linus, on the other hand, couldn’t care less what others think of him. He is mildly appreciative of the caring he receives, but ultimately feels magnanimous in allowing his owner to enjoy his own companionship. By the middle of the play the dialogue ends up being a touch repetitive, and even starts to feel like an SNL sketch. But the performances merit praise, as does the sharp direction by RJ Tolan. When, at the end, we meet the pets’s owners, played by the same actors, this comedy unexpectedly becomes very poignant. It is a welcome outcome.

Equally – and perhaps even more – satisfying was Disney and Fujikawa by Lloyd Suh, with a very strong performance by Jeff Biehl as Walt Disney. The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor, and internment camps have begun to sprout up around the country. An old acquaintance, a Japanese-American illustrator (Tiffany Villarin) shows up at Disney’s office in New York City in hopes of rekindling a professional relationship. She is armed with a large portfolio containing sketches for a new project she is pitching, one that involves a multi-racial story line of White, Asian and African-American children as its protagonists. Disney begins to shift uncomfortably in his seat as he reviews the sketches, and the conversation becomes even more strained when he learns that Gyo’s family has been incarcerated in Arkansas. What follows is a rather riveting exchange that pitches a privileged man’s view of the world against a marginal woman’s resentment and despair.

Also about race, incarceration and its devastating after-effects, On the outs by Christina Gorman, is a moving portrait of psychological anguish, stirringly acted by Lynnette R. Freeman as Leticia and Joe Holt as Jonas. The father of her child has been released from prison, and although the couple are no longer romantically involved, Leticia is generously allowing Jonas to spend a few weeks at her place. Jonas, however, is having a hell of a time adjusting to his newfound freedom. He raids the refrigerator at night for all the delicacies he hasn’t been able to enjoy, but ends up with indigestion rather than fulfillment. And while he is thrilled to be able once again to use a fork and a knife, out of habit he ends up eating everything with a spoon. When Leticia suggests he attend their daughter’s graduation he gets a panic attack, and his state of mind becomes all too clear when he begs Leticia to lock him up inside his room. It’s the only way he can get a good night’s sleep.

36th Marathon of One-Act Plays. Series B. Sunday May 28th 2017 – Monday, June 26th, 2017.

Down Cleghorn, written by Julia Specht, directed by Ralph Peña. Starring Lauren Hines, Emily Jackson, Patricia Randell.

Falling Away, written by Christopher Shinn, directed by Mark Armstrong. Starring Sara Bues, Charles Socarides.

Linus and Murray, written by Leah Nanako Winkler, directed by RJ Tolan. Starring Curran Connor, Debargo Sanyal.

Disney and Fujikawa, written by Lloyd Suh, directed by Linsay Firman. Starring Jeff Biehl, Tiffany Villarin.

On the outs, written by Christina Gorman, directed by David Auburn. Starring Lynnette R. Freeman, Joe Holt.

Scenic Designer, Jason Ardizzone-West; Costume Designer, Audrey Nauman; Lighting Designer, John Salutz; Sound Designer, Almeda Beynon; Props Master, Claire Rufiange; Production Stage Manager, Eileen Lalley; Assistant Stage Manager, Rachel Winfield; Technical Director, Jon Higgins; Master Electrician, Artem Kreimer; Production Manager, Jack Plowe; General Manager, Nicholas Ward.

Ensemble Studio Theater, 545 West 52nd Street, New York, NY 10019. Tickets.