Cricket's Notebook by Larry Stark

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide



entire contents copyright 1997/1998 by Larry Stark

What Do You Mean By "BEST"?
--- Monday, 15 June, '98

The Playwrights' Platform Summer Festival of New Plays is over, and the votes for best play have been tallied. The audience voted "A Love Less Complicated" a one-act written and directed by Kevin M. Connolly the best play, with another one-act written and directed by Jeffry Herman, "Damn Your Eyes" in second place. The playwrights' poll named the best play "Sunday Visitors" by Jerry Bizantz, directed by John MacKenzie, with "Free Parking, Cheap" by Frank A. Shefton and directed by Sharon Squires coming in second. But the level of excellence this year was really high, both in performances and in writing, so a lot of plays clustered at the top, all of them with a claim to "best" on differing grounds.

The festival fielded eleven plays in four different programs, but many people came to see only one evening's offerings and saw at most only three of the plays, in some cases only one --- yet a lot of these people voted for best play. They may have come to cheer on a friend or family member in the cast, but no doubt their votes were unbiased. Still, how useful is a best-play recommendation from someone who did not see the other eight --- or in some cases ten --- plays in the running?

I did see all eleven plays, and with such fine material to decide on I can think of several ways to choose, and some ways would change the outcome.

I had seen three of these plays read at Platform meetings, and they "cleaned up real good" when the actors learned the lines and had sets and lights and direction improving the effect. Loyal attendees at regular meetings might have been judging simply on improvement --- on how much better the final draft was than the reading, where all stage-directions were merely read, not acted out. That criterion would have weighted Stephen Fulchino's "Buddha Or Death" --- a string of almost minimalistic short scenes telling its story in a manner that would be perfect on video --- a lot more in my eyes. It looked much better this time around.

Then people might judge on reach --- on how a play stretches possibilities. Jerry Bisantz' "Sunday Visitors" alternated between the memory/fantasy past and the crueller present of a half-paralysed woman who can no longer speak coherently, and it was easily and lovingly well acted. (One of her fantasies involved how her first, aborted child might have grown up, and painted him as a brooding, vindictive assassin; well realized though it was, I felt this an intrusion, or possibly an idea for a completely different play.) Then there was "Every Five Minutes on The Chester Bowles Highway" by Kirsten Greenidge, which chronicled a woman's unsuccessful attempts not to grow up a clone of her mother. Every scene of this sprawling, formless play had scintillatingly sharp dialog, but each scene looked like a whole new play, and the pieces didn't add up. For all its wit and sharp observation, I had the feeling that this script will be a movie instead of a play when it grows up --- unless it's a novel; but whatever its final form, the repartee will be stunning fun. And Joseph Mantagna's "A Glorious Morning" had an outrageously sleazy reprobate and his trustingly innocent spouse revealed to be Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty --- fast, funny, but quite slight.

Then again, for some neatness counts, and several of the short plays threw together two or three unlikely characters and watched them interact. In Frank Shelton's "Free Parking, Cheap" it was a homeless Black hustler talking a suburbanite out of visiting a whore on the grounds that "you shouldn't make the mistake that got me where I am." I thought it was cute, but no cigar. In John O'Brien's "The Hobo Kid" the three characters had much better reasons for meeting in a back alley: a truant-officer tracks down a kid who's not in school because he's watching his father drink himself to death. Each new layer of awareness here was delicately revealed, and the cast obviously had a ball with the dialog and the pauses. In Jeffry Herman's "Damn Your Eyes" the characters were an end-of-his-rope guy and the female demon he summons to ask one wish --- true love. As each character learned more about the other, battling over the terms of the bargain, demon and person became more and more human. Kevin Connolly's "A Love Less Complicated" opens with two mismatched couples dining together then pairing off. One pair is ending a long affaire, while their spouses remember one mad, impetuous night together. This covered more territory, and its neatness was its charm. Geralyn Horton's "A Late Lunch" set two late-thirties woman regretting the difficulties of having a child and of not having a child. Neatly crafted, this slice-of-life looked like a well-turned acting exercise.

The longer plays might have scored points for research. Patricia Harte's "Learning Latin in Louisville" was mainly the biography of a gay couple for whom "learning Latin" became their euphemism for intercourse from their meeting in 1936 to the death from AIDS of one of them in 1987, and even a glimpse of his lonely aftermath. My problem here was that several unexplored characters (the boy's ageing mother learning to accept him, his emotionless sister, and a young, curious niece) were more intriguing than the main event, which told me nothing new about gay love, and told the ordinary in ordinary scenes. Robert Johnson's "Train Ride" wondered what would happen, in 1943, when a train carrying two Bostonian recruits to Marine Boot Camp crossed the Mason/Dixon line, and the Black boy was made to move to the rattier "Nigger car". A proud Negro porter, a red-neck conductor, and an old Bible-thumping Black matron in different ways argued for the status quo -- or at least against making waves --- but the kids' first taste of segregation was a shock. Both these plays took pains to get the periods accurately, and both of them looked to me more like movie or television fare than stage plays.

Of course, one criterion could have been how easily the actors slipped into these characters, and another how easy it would be to imagine some good local company doing the play successfully. I thought "Sunday Visitors" "A Love Less Complicated" "A Late Lunch" and "The Hobo Kid" all fit those categories perfectly. But, when I came to casting my vote, it went to "Damn Your Eyes" because ---- well, because it was fun!

I hope anyone else who attended the festival will tell The Mirror what they voted for, and why.


THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide