Every summer the Playwrights' Platform votes the cream of their winter-long weekends of readings/discussions onto the stage of the Massachusetts College of Art for the final test: can the play survive the interpretations of actors and directors to interest, please, and delight an audience. This year's crop of thirteen new plays began and ended with original vest-pocket musicals, the last of which ("Voices in My Head" by Ry Herman) won the votes of both the Platform's playwrights and the festival audience, and looks like it has legs. Here's a brief summary of that delightful bit of originality, and its dozen competitors:
Thursday, 7 June:
The Festival's opening evening had a sort of prelude: a set of four songs by Shari Ajemian and Sarah Newcomb that were satirical "monologues" in the mouths of people in famous paintings: Whistler's grumpy mother; a winsome imp in Sargent's quartet of too-good children; and Paul Revere commenting on his hoped-for "fame" as a silversmith but then, in another, more tellingly on his thumb's discovery that he needs a shave.
These were followed by a full-musical investigation of "Cinderella And The Fuzzy Slippers" by the same creative pair. This modern revamp turns much of the story on its head, with Cindy the necessary do-it-yourself-er singing a duet with a sock-puppet and threatening her cruel sisters with a deadly glue-gun. The show was seen earlier this year at The Boston Theater Marathon, and a second act ball-scene is, everyone hopes, in preparation in the wings. (On my ballot it was #3)
Jerry Bisantz' "Rain Delay" had a father (Jerry Kaplan) taking his baseball-hating son to Fenway Park even though it's empty of everything but pouring rain, because his life and his marriage have been shattered by some infamous (though in the text undefined)criminal accusation. Bisantz kept the real conflict through "guy-talk" about love of the losing Red Sox, and that brought the dramatic focus down on the kid, played by Bisantz own son Max. Sheila Stasack did an excellent directing job. (Since I saw it first the re-writes have gotten sharper; I voted it a #2)
"Get Out of My American Way" by Patrick M. Brennan was a skirmish in contemporary sexual wars, with Jason Myatt playing a programmer with the company since its start lashing out at what he sees as the dis-passion with which an apparatchic-drone (Kim Anton) announces his nothing-personal lay-off. But when it turns out he's a Jim, not the designated firee John, it's the lady's turn to assert her "manliness"! Neatly machined. (I voted it #3)
The trials of modern marriage were the subject of Geralyn Horton's "One Fiery Leaf" in which June Lewin's widowed mother cautioned daughter Chandra Pierogostini not to conclude that indifferent husbands can never change but only divorced. The short- and long-views, the repetitions and differences in two marriages, and the backyard garden setting, provided chances for insights and metaphors of delicate intensity, and Lewin seems particularly apt as this playwright's star. (I gave it a #2)
Actor/stage-manager Mark Sickler's "Breaking The Seal" broke a seal of silence to boldly go where no woman has ever gone before: into the Men's Room. Done as a t-v documentary being filmed to reveal the mores and rituals defining behavior in this hitherto unexamined facet of modern living. The cast (Jason Myatt, Jerry Bisantz, Jason Yutaines & Michael Pelusso) used re-takes and re-winds, expository narration, and crisp dead-pan action for this ten minute riot out of left field. (Clearly, for me this was #2 on the ballot)
Thursday, 14 June.
This was Turkey Day at Playwrights' Platform; there's no other way to talk about these three half-hour presentations. And though I don't usually talk at length about what I don't like, these three exhibit such "typical" flaws that careful examination might actually be instructive:
A LEFT TURN AT ALBUQUERQUE by Harvey Soolman
The program note "from his screenplay" is a big clue here. The setting is a gritty local bar with a character as a bartender (Bob Astyk) and two regulars already getting tanked (Jim Moran & Lawrence Duggan) who are there for a 10 a.m. ritual laugh at old Warner Brothers cartoons on the tube. A woman (Lis Adams), just walked away from her life with an indifferent husband and two sons she loves but doesn't like, mopes in ordering "a new life" and the chortling barkeep lays on quotes of deep profundities from Elmer Fudd and Sylvester the Cat advising her to be all she can. Upbeat exit. Curtain.
This was the best of three, but no cigar.
The situation mirrors "Petrified Forest" or "Key Largo" or even O'Neill's "Iceman" without saying much to the present day rather than past sensibility. The Saroyan-like switches between bathos and wit add nothing new to what feel like clichés. And the sudden, intense confidences sound both contrived and unoriginal. And film won't help.
At least it was a play, with a single set, characters who talked to one another like people, and a situation explained and solved through interactions. That wasn't true of:
UP THE MOUNTAIN AND DOWN by Miriam d'Amato
This was a reading, with music-stands, of the Abraham & Isaac myth, with the part of Sarah the wife considerably inflated from the original. Top-heavy with dull exposition re-telling the story, the script never let this trio become either Canaanites of 1200 BC (as the program insisted) or modern people with real emotions or lives. They remained hollow mouthpieces for the author's glosses and insights, none of which could interest an audience interested more in theater than in religious dogma. Walter Graham as "Avram" Stephen Radochia as his son and Geralyn Horton as Mum might have been more interesting in Greek masks, but no less boringly inflexible in this synagogue chalk-talk.
But it had a story. Not so
INAUDIBLE LAUGHTER by Michael Koran
This piece had several little stories, all pretending to circle about that same Abraham/Isaac myth, all presented by the author/storyteller as though incidents from his real life. The performer demanded the house-lights to come up --- though they disappeared, and even the lights on-stage went to black at one confusing point --- and spoke in a nearly inaudible, nervously disjointed conversational tone as though improvising. The whole event seemed personally cathartic for the performer --- much as though he were avoiding turning all this rather self-indulgently personal material into anything resembling a real play. He came dangerously close at times to allowing the largely silent and respectful audience a chance at verbal dialogue; the detached boredom of that crowd, I fear, would have turned derisively abusive had they been allowed to respond --- and I must admit I would have joined in, though not throwing the first stone.
In one sense, these three seemed to me to suffer from the identical flaw: each was the material out of which a play might have been written, not finished products at all.
(On my ballot these were voted, in order: #13 #14 and #15)
Here let me make an irrelevant digression:
I was awake early on the 14th (which was yesterday as I type this), wrote my review of the glowingly luminous Gloucester Stage production of "Molly Sweeney" I'd seen the previous night, did the transfers of e-mail to various parts of The Mirror, and then took a nap. (That's preferable I think to falling asleep at the keypad and imploding the vdt-monitor with my forehead.)
I woke to realize the alarm had been set to A M not P M, and dashed off (without shaving) to a doctor's appointment in a different than usual building at Beth Israel that I had difficulty finding --- after walking from Kenmore Square through some of the heaviest humid air of the year. Once I found the building and waited long and impatiently for the only information-person to elaborate directions for someone Else to find His doctor, I was finally told to take off shoes and socks and wait.
"What are you here for?" the podiatrist asked.
He looked and poked and took a scraping, said it WAS possible that my own immune system had fought it off. "The bottom-line is: it doesn't hurt. You don't need me! Goodby." Total elapsed time in the chair: five minutes, max.
Great. But that left me, sweat-soaked and frustrated by my third (and this one unnecessary) trip to B.I. in four days, with roughly two empty hours to fill before curtain-time after a totally wasted afternoon, and no hope of getting back home for shave and shower. Boston is a bitch of as town to waste time in without money.
And what was in store for me? Turkey Day at Playwrights'!
In between, I treated myself to a bacon/mushroom cheeseburger and a manhattan (straight-up) at Remington's, spending money I probably should have saved for groceries, and watched a dutifully conscientious trainee being educated in her new job by a super-efficient waitress with personality and sensitivity. I wished I could leave a larger tip, but I did manage to whisper "She has a great teacher" to her as I pushed off toward Tower Auditorium and what I hoped would be three fascinating theatrical experiences.
And now back to Tower Auditorium!
Saturday, 16 June:
The level of acting, even on Turkey Night, was excellent this year and despite brief rehearsals I think no playwright could complain that the words were done disservice by their players. Handing a play on, to see what different actors (and sometimes different directors) can find in the text is the first major test of a play. This final night, acting was excellent throughout.
Robert Mattson's "Playing House" was a neatly turned, biting little comedy in which a cute little girl (Wendy Golden) involves a boy (John Carozza) in a kid's role-play, and turns into the passive/aggressive wife from hell while his bewildered reactions stay at the sandbox level. A really neat comedy. (My vote: #2)
Joseph Montagna wrote and acted in his equally neat "Message in A Bottle" in which a just-fired guy insists he spent his last $40 for two bottles of "Prosperity" and he and his wife (Jennifer Morris) are going to be fine. Apparently he didn't learn from his unsatisfactory purchase of a dozen bottles of a perfume called "Success"! Montana does great dialogue, but played not delved into the ramifications of the words. (I voted it #3.)
Michael Sallen directed his own "Joy" --- a zany comedy with a liberal (Geralyn Horton) and a conservative (Archer O'Reilly) teacher inspiring and castigating a student (Dan Roberto, with a flawless Hispanic accent and delivery) of near fifty who's still trying to pass the MCAS test. Sallen's playlets have no plots, they're set in 'the void', and every sentence seems to change the subject while commenting satirically on the one before --- and he rarely re-writes. The actors here transcended their cartoon-thin personae, and the surface glitter of their trialogue gave excellent opportunities for meatily ironic jibes.
Sallen is a continual vesuvius of creativity, and it's a shame the old comedy-revues like Sid Caesar's and Red Skelton's aren't around to use his sometimes brilliant, sometimes fizzled strings of lines. I've missed in his work an editor with a sense of form. This was for me his most successful romp, but maybe re-writes aren't such a bad idea. (On my ballot this was a high #3)
"What's Harry Gonna Say..." was another episode in Rebecca Saunders' saga of Sothron strangeness that may eventually become a three-act comedy --- or a daytime serial in the mode of "Ferndale Tonight". Diane Saunders and Edward Miller, sitting before open newspapers while Francine Davis flitted nervously about, talked over the situation to come when a wayward husband returned to find his in-laws and his wife's pets infesting the homestead, while the nervous sister engaged in fantasies of bringing Harry "breakfast" (nudgenudge, winkwink).
This set of "rushes" for the final film could not stand alone, though the dialogue gave cast and director Jack Wickwire plenty of opportunities for fun. I think though I'll wait for the assembled work, however long it turns out to be. (This was #3 for me.)
And then there was "Voices in My Head" --- book, lyrics and music by director and stage-manager Ry Herman, with pianist Synthis Sture, Choreography by Herman and Morgan Carberry, and a crew of about half a dozen. Apparently everyone who saw it gave it #1, and I certainly did as well. Everything about this half-hour sparkled with energy, wit, and surprising originality.
As she explains, Michele Markarian is Sam, a frustrated sculptor taking a job as receptionist for a company that never gets phone-calls. (The ideal artist's day-job!) In her eight-hours of free time she begins an e-mail affair with Zoot (Kurt Gombar), not even knowing of he's really a girl, and listens to The Voices (Dan Taylor [who is female] and Rob Steiger) who tell her that her only friend Pat(Jason Taylor) is trying to kill her --- which happens to be true! Because he's a figment who says Sam is living a lousy life with it, so he wants her body. Luckily Zoot finds first her phone number and then her address on the Internet and just happens to drop by in time to reinvigorate her life so that She shoots Pat and the couple live happily ever after, listening to the voices in her head.
If that was blurred by the high speed, well, the production did rattle on at a breakneck pace using Willow Taylor's colorful and expressive costumes and masks, and never a wasted second, taking full advantage of theatrical reality. (Sam suddenly notices "Pat, you never come in through the door; you just Appear. How do you do that? Walk through a door for me, please, just to prove you can do it!") The mix of contemporary commentary and twisting logic stays just ahead of the audience's mind so they're too busy watching ideas explode to think about them. It's a triumph, and once producers and publishers find out about it, I'm certain it will have life after Playwrights' Platform.(I think Bisantz' "Rain Delay" will too.)
All in all, a typical Summer Festival at Playwrights' Platform!