Oh, American playwrights are just fine after all. In fact, they're absolutely vital, as evinced by this final installment of the Vital Signs one-act play festival. The event has been well curated and all of the plays bring something well worth seeing to the table, from Shelia Callaghan's always welcome eccentricity (remember when people actually enjoyed playing with language?) to another of Sharyn Rothstein's portrayals of real people caught up on the verge of something larger than themselves.
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
Between this week's series of one-acts and last week's, I think it's safe to say that Vital Signs has earned its name. These final four premieres share little in common -- there's a twisted fairy tale, a sequel to Our Town, a whimsically written parable, and a rhythmic love story -- save that they are all well-produced, honestly performed, and splendid to watch.
The opening play, Sharyn Rothstein's "Senor Jay's Tango Palace," uses a backdrop of that most passionate of dances as a cautionary warning to those who lose their spark. Marlo Hunter's direction (and choreography) lets Marmalade (Maria Parra) and Robert (Leo Ash Evens) loose in the background while Ben Johnson (Nick Merritt) and Senor Jay (Jose Febus) can only watch, as they do every night, their dreams flicker momentarily before them. They've also resigned themselves to the most dismal of dreams: Jay's is a rundown place, and Robert's more interested in groping the innocent Marmalade than he is in dancing with her. Although Ben's contemplative small talk is the highlight of the show, Jay's easy going nature is what sells it; Jay is another one of Rothstein's all-too-human failures: he humanizes everyone around him, even though he's lost his corazon.
The next piece, Cheri Magid's "The Lock," uses a staple of symbolism -- the fortress -- to look at the consequences of such imprisoning protection on The Lady (Carla Rzeszewski), and the truth behind such white-horsed characters as The Prince (Christian Felix). In a series of progressive scenes, simply directed by Blake Lawrence, Rzeszewski slowly kindles to life, blossoming before our eyes with a girlish vigor that keeps us rapt with anticipation. To tie each of the Prince's visits together, each one slowly dissolving the castle walls, Magid adds a Soothsayer (Alice Barden) whose simple poem haunts the proceedings with an eerily erotic message, full, like life, of foreboding and hope.
As for Shelia Callaghan's wonderfully written "Ayravana Flies or A Pretty Dish," the need for exotic excitement comes across a bit cryptically, but is completely carried by the characters: a shy (and English) Elephant (Fletcher McTaggart) and an excitable young cook, Olivia (Lauren Walsh Singerman). In a series of alternating monologues, Callaghan convinces us of how important it is that we really live and explore our world -- not just by vicariously throwing in foreign spices like cumin, or by working in an airport to be around those bold enough to fly, but by daring to take risks oneself, even when it may lead to disaster. McTaggart plays the elephant with the potential to soar, but it's Singerman who literally zooms across the stage, helping to make even the ambiguous portions of the script crackle with Callaghan's unique wit.
The final piece, It's Our Town, Too, is good -- but a bit exploitative. In the first scene, writer/Stage Manager Susan Miller introduces us to another town, a modern one filled with a gay couple, George and Louis (David Lloyd Walters and Dan Via) and a lesbian couple, Emily and Elizabeth (Alexis Slade and Amy Staats), who are about to see their adopted children Molly and Chance (Janet S. Kim and Jason Cruz) get married. By portraying modern relationships in Wilder's familiar model of family/town/community, Miller pays homage and makes a bold statement all at once. But her second scene, the "death" scene, seems to be pulled directly from the original Our Town, and seems to be placed there to mine our emotions without earning them: if the point is simply that gay, lesbian, or straight, there's no difference in the way we live, love, die, and grieve, then it's just overkill: the point is made already, now let it rest in peace.
All told, this twelfth installment of Vital Signs gives the impression that America has a fine and healthy heartbeat of new playwrights, ones who collectively draw from a rich culture of the past and actively develop -- with new voices -- a culture for the future.
McGinn/Cazale Theater (2162 Broadway; Fourth Floor)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00
Performances (through 12/16): Thurs. - Sun. @ 7:00
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.