Last year I saw all the plays that were presented at the Playwrights' Platform Summer Festival of New Plays, but for some reason wrote nothing about them. The complaints I got about my omission were quite justified. The fact is that all the other critics who attended the festival, except for me, were long-standing members of the group, and at least one of them had entered a play. Because ALL of the major --- or even minor! --- media in Boston consistently ignore this annual display of new work, I was the only reviewer who could report on what was there, and I blew it; for which I apologise. If a play is performed in a forest with no critics noticing, how does anyone know anything happened at all? So here's my view of what happened at Tower Auditorium for the last two weeks --- a view that differs with the votes of both the playwrights present and those of the disinterested audience.
Both the audience and the playwrights agreed that young James Armstrong's play "Birdgirl on Walkabout" was their favorite. They disagreed though on runners-up, and both parties split their votes. The playwrights cited both "Tit for Tat" by Jerry Bisantz and "All on Account of A Dog" by Rebecca Saunders, while the audience recognized both "The Quality of Being Holy" by Karla Sorenson and "Dessert" by Stephen Fulchino as the second-bests. Let me try to talk about them all at some length.
BIRDGIRL ON WALKABOUT
This evolved as a well-written squabble between an idealistic younger sister and her dogmatically practical elder brother about ... well, just about everything. Stranded by car-trouble on their way to look at the Grand Canyon, they bitch and bicker and taunt one another from their different vantage-points, only gradually teasing out brother's more clear-eyed critical memories of their parents. The language is bright and current, the characters slug it out solidly without giving quarter, and occasionally allow an obvious love and respect they feel for one another to blaze up out of the arguing.
I found it a promising but unfinished play that could benefit from pruning. There were points when exchanges sounded a little as though the cast (Stephanie Fredericks and Louis See) may have recycled some lines, the wording was so similar, the material covered both familiar and unchanged by the new chew. And, obviously, there seems more material concerning the family past that is hinted at but not explored. The exploration need not be explicit, but I felt this a potential rather than a finished play by a young and interesting mind.
THE QUALITY OF BEING HOLY
This is another family squabble, but at the other end of the spectrum. Three Catholic sisters meet for a ritual card-game, but rather than new college graduates they're at the grandmother stage. The two elders --- one a widow, the eldest a spinster schoolteacher --- envy the supposed successes of the spoiled baby, but the barbed banter reveals three very different sorts of personally-felt failure working against one another. The youngest, for instance, wants the "holiest" middle sister to baptize her grandson with stolen holy water, because her daughter is a New Age flake and her husband a Protestant.
Frankly, I found more meat here, with both the funny fringes of Catholicism and the forgiven yet unforgettable slights of close family infighting getting delicate attention. And, once again, despite the nettles and the needling, family fondness re-seals all rifts. Cyndi Geller, Christine Connors and Carol Daniels obviously warmed to their roles.
Rather than a single-scene development of character, this is a solid series of short scenes with a plot. A new young baker specializing in desserts shakes up the staid staff of an old firm, has a quick fling with the cautious accountant whose charms the loveable lout of a bread-expert fails to recognize --- and then splits because he's an insincere actor. The unstated tensions of whether the guy should be believed are really well worked, until his betrayal has the force of an exploding cigar, and all four characters --- there's the bakery's hot old-lady owner as well --- are believably multi-faceted.
But for me this play feels so neat that it's caged. There is a lapidary finish to its pieces, the joinery is admirable, the people are artfully nuanced --- yet at play's end it felt to me like a brilliantly crafted small joke. Bread-man and accountant don't either recognize each other's depths, or even settle for one another. Except for her palpable wound, nothing in this little microcosm has really changed. It's as though a very interesting stone causes only temporary ripples in a neat little pail of water.
ALL ON ACCOUNT OF A DOG
This is again a two-character one-act, this time father and young daughter on an aimless Sunday-morning drive during which the far from aimless conversation almost reveals that the girl's mother has apparently run off with her uncle. The two discuss these two, and the deserted aunt, in insights and revelations tinged with the accents of the small-town South. Daddy wants to be fair, wants this to be temporary, wants to shield the girl from grown-up fact, and doesn't want to be distracted by the three-legged dog his daughter sees beside the road and insists on adopting. There is a lot of distracting detail here, and a sure feel for the flavor of life unique to these people. Style and substance coincide.
I find this an engaging slice-of-life look at unique individuals that swim out of nowhere, fascinate for a while, and then fade. I know from the playwright's other work that this is one of a mosaic of short plays all mining the same situation from many different angles. This is the best-crafted so far, but there is a Faulknerian big-picture hinted at here that I love to watch being expanded toward.
TIT FOR TAT
Here the two adulterous characters have for years met every third Wednesday for a "pure sex" experience, but suddenly she wants to declare new rules: from now on, you pay me. And he's unfeeling enough to dicker over the amount.
I found this a tight, succinct, intense confrontation that steadfastly refused to allow itself the cop-out of becoming funny. With hardly a word wasted or irrelevant the characters came abruptly alive, had their say, and illuminated both their pasts and their future with their argument. And the playwright himself (Jerry Bisantz) and Michelle Aguillon made every pause count here.
Okay, those were the five voted favorites. I'll have a word to say about acting later, and another about my own hierarchy of favorites. But here, briefly, is a quick description of the eleven plays that playwrights and audience voted also-rans:
ON BUYING A NEW CAR, by Michael Sallen
A comedy routine with the salesman piling outlandishly ridiculous detail upon detail; heavily dependent on the actors for effect.
THE THINGS YOU DO, by Patrick Vogelpohl
Another comedy skit with a man pleading with a friend who finally appears ready to perform an amputation with a chain-saw.
GONE FISHING, by Barbara Fulchino
A quick, laconic series of memories of fishing and being taught to curse by dad, then a final scene of daughter putting a fishing-pole on his coffin and cursing in grief. A quick, serious television sketch, under-rehearsed.
ME AND SAM, by Irv Smolker
A guy talking to his faithful dog about his suddenly missing lady-love.
2 TO DIE AT DAWN, by John O'Brien
An original Abbott&Costello-style comedy routine with two guys trying to pass their last night on earth in philosophical contradictions and misunderstandings. Funnier if shorter.
THE MILLENNIUM ARRIVES IN SUBURBIA, by Patrick M. Brennan
The security guard at a gated community concludes that he, his buddy and a girlfriend are alone on Earth and about to be taken home by other saucer-people like themselves. Not even the other two are convinced. Over-long developing, considering that the deus-ex-machina is a police helicopter.
AN UNWELCOME GUEST, by Joseph Montagna
A nervous newlywed introduces her new spouse to the very palpable ghost of a man who once date-raped her and has been sharing her life ever since. I felt this was a one-scene sketch for a two-scene play in which the implications and ramifications of this metaphysical menage-a-trois had yet to be explored. It has feel for believable dialogue in unbelievable situations.
ENCOUNTER WITH A SCOTTISH POET, by Peter Gordon
For all I know this could well have been the unsung masterpiece of the festival, but I didn't understand a word of it. A lady poet waiting for her husband wrestles mightily with spates of very poetic poetry, then out of the storm comes an American whose car has broken down. Later he goes, and the husband appears. The densely airy dialogue was, for me, much more lovely than comprehensible, and the actors indicated intense emotion by murmuring too many lines. I think perhaps I'd like to see this play read again, however, and perhaps someone else who understood it better will e-mail me some comments that would make it clearer.
THE QUEEN OF PERSIA, by Miriam F. d'Amato
This is a modern re-creation of the Biblical legend of Esther, whose beauty so captivated the Persian king that she could reverse the persecutions of her Jewish people wreaked by the king's evil lieutenant Haiman. This is a dialogue between the deposed queen and Esther, and June Lewin and Danielle DiDio did a very effective job. Aside from keeping the old queen's identity a secret early on, and watching them overcome their reasons for mistrust because of mutual respect and interests, it remained for me the old story with very little new insight or surprise.
SWALLOWING THE SPIDER, by Lin Haire-Sargeant
This is almost a vignette, with a woman terrified of a spider in the bathroom, obsessed with seeing them, and finally admitting to her husband that the "spider inside her" is a recently diagnosed breast-cancer. The craft here is admirable, the situation compelling, but at bottom the material is for me a little thin, and the implications for this couple rely heavily on the subtext the actors can try to imply from the last few lines.
THE 12:22 BRIGHTON FROM LONDON/VICTORIA, by Geralyn Horton
This is a dramatic monologue in which a tipsy divorcee staggers raucously into the last train home deciding whether to ride the extra stop for a night with the "yum" bloke she picked from an office party, or to roll home to mum babysitting her kid. I have seen Birgit Huppuch do this three different times now, each time better and better, and I think it's a bloody masterpiece. Huppuch has lived inside this ageing shady-lady long enough now to wobble across the line from noisy drunk to blurry self-awareness and back almost at will. This play may be a bit too British this side the puddle, but if they're still doing lunch-time theatre at the Bush Theatre in Richmond it should run there forever.
Okay, I've already started talking about the acting, haven't I.
The important thing about Playwrights' Platform, even for their summer Festivals, is that each playwright is ultimately responsible for the production. Some of them act as their own directors; some even as their own actors. Those who make the effort to find the best people to embody the play may thus have an advantage with the voting audience, but there's another dynamic working here as well: the better the play, the better the acting Can Be. (And I did see some this time 'round where I could tell the lines were Much better than the acting of them, but damn few where I felt the reverse was true.
And so I'd like to say that my own personal scorecard this year put Jerry Bisantz and Michelle Aguillon doing his "Tit for Tat" and Huppuch in Horton's "The 12:22..." in a tie for top, followed closely by Jason Taylor and Aidin Cary in "All on Account of A Dog".
Then I'd bunch Carol Daniels, Christine Connors and Cyndi Geller in "The Quality of Being Holy"; Rebecca Saunders and Dan Beasley in "Swallowing The Spider"; Louis See and Stephanie Fredericks in "Birdgirl on Walkabout"; Korinne Hertz, Cyndi Geller, Randy Farias, and Keith Mahoney in "Dessert"; and Danielle DiDio and June Lewin in "The Queen of Persia" --- all in no particular order at all --- and.........
And about there the line gets hazy because my balance-scale begins to dip more and more on the negative than the positive from there on.
But there are two more things I must say.
First, the outpourings of generosity from crew, casts, technicians, directors and organizers every year astonishes me. The group pays participants, but none of them come back again and again for the money. They do it for love of theater, and for love of each other, and because they love doing it. I think, for that reason, the final-night cast-party was such a conversational love-fest that announcing of "winners" was almost an unimportant aside. The being-together was more than enough.
But, finally, every year the audience is less than half full, and every year the only active critic in the crowd is.............merely me.
Whatever they might say about what they saw, the Boston critics should have a duty to take this festival as seriously as it takes itself. The better the audiences, the better the plays.