Summerworks Festival 2014

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Photograph: Daniel Terna
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Photograph: Daniel Terna

Summerworks Festival 2014: In brief

Clubbed Thumb mounts its 19th annual new-works festival, one of the best ways to see which local playwrights have had their digits whacked with the talent hammer. The productions include Jenny Schwartz's 41-derful (May 30–June 8), Ariel Stess's I'm Pretty Fucked Up (June 13–23) and Peggy Stafford's 16 Words or Less (June 26–July 5).

16 Words or Less. Wild Project (see Off-Off Broadway). By Peggy Stafford. Directed by Portia Krieger. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 15mins. No intermission.

TWO STARS.

16 Words or Less: Theater review by Helen Shaw

Clubbed Thumb's mission has always been to produce “funny, strange, provocative” pieces—and much of the time those guidelines lead to mighty good stuff. But in Peggy Stafford's meandering 16 Words or Less, we see what happens when a writer attains those first three descriptors—and is still working on even more important ones, like, say, “energized, perceptive, true.”

Lonely, rule-following Crystal (Crystal Finn) works in a flower shop in Brooklyn. Her troubles are few but persistent: People order flowers but refuse to stick to the word limit on the card (hence Stafford's title), and a pesky “cancer care” do-gooder (Clayton Dean Smith) keeps calling to insist she cut off and donate her waist-length tresses. Smith—wonderfully world-weary—sulks up a storm (“Listen, lady, children need your hair!”) and Stafford shows real chutzpah in making those tragic, imaginary children into a reliably funny joke.

The other people calling My Fair Lilac, however, are quirk bots from the quirk factory. Jonathan (Neal Huff) has just gotten divorced and likes to reminisce about his mom's long hair, and 16-year-old Karen Carly (Jessica Rothe) chirps blithely about her grandma (Mia Katigbak), then serenades Crystal on her ukulele. That's a red flag: The ukulele is a particularly damning sign of unimaginative quirk. Spacey Crystal's anxieties increase—standing in her glass flower shop (Daniel Zimmerman gives us a clever, open set), she's exposed to the slings and arrows of random callers, who sometimes multiply into a nightmarish medical crew. Various tests have come out wrong, and eventually Jonathan's doctor ex-wife (Donnetta Lavinia Grays) will need to remove Crystal's breast.

All of this just…happens. No event seems to demand that another event follow it: The phone rings, Crystal has an encounter, a baffling romance unfurls because Jonathan is a male of Crystal's age. Finn's stunned expression and dreamy tones have given other works a Brechtian glaze, but here director Portia Krieger can't use her diffidence to any real effect. Stafford has written ciphers that don’t lead anywhere; things are weird, but they create no sense of mystery or hidden life.

Most years, Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks festival is our best and most consistent showcase of eccentric comic neorealism. Within this fresh genre it's still possible, though, to find work that's derivative, that copies the form but hasn't found its own power. The Thumb's characteristic fingerprints include poetic structure and absurdist menace, but in and of themselves, these qualities won’t sustain a show. Stafford's loopy juxtapositions are infertile; the repetition-filled dialogue points to linguistic motif but lacks lyrical heft. The result feels very long, even at 75 minutes. Poor Crystal kept harping on about her 16 words, and we're meant to hope she loosens up. But being verbose isn't just her customers' problem: If anything, the play could have used fewer.—Theater review by Helen Shaw

Click here for discount Broadway and Off Broadway tickets.

Summerworks Festival 2014: I'm Pretty Fucked Up. Wild Project (see Off-Off Broadway). By Ariel Stess. Directed by Kip Fagan. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission. FIVE STARS.

I’m Pretty Fucked Up: Theater review by Helen Shaw

Ariel Stess's violently funny high-school comedy, I'm Pretty Fucked Up, is wrong on a lot of levels—all delicious, many disturbing. We find ourselves laughing at a campus in lockdown, with trench-coated teens prowling through the bushes and a security team on high alert. How dare we? This is the untouchably awful reality of our age, and Stess stomps gleefully around in it, kicking over genuine tragedies as though they're sand castles.

And then there's the parallel plot—three kids smoking bowl after bowl (“It's 4/20 man.”) while driving recklessly thither and yon. This is our nation's youth! It's so wrong to giggle! Yet somehow we're not depressed when spacey Isabel (Lauren Annunziata), blithe Jared (Ben Hollandsworth) and dorky sweetheart Dan (Seth Clayton) cut class, grab Taco Bell and generally make terrible decisions. Our happiness for them isn't just a contact high from their joy at playing hooky. They are Ferris Buellers in a less innocent age: Their “day off” may be saving their lives.

One of the comic joys here feels long in coming. Finally, Danny Wolohan has a role that puts his gifts center-stage. Wolohan, an anarchic wild card in shows like The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters and An Octoroon, is the kind of clown Shakespeare wrote for; in fact, his baffled bumpkin security guard could be a long-descended cousin of Much Ado About Nothing's Dogberry. Wolohan's creation is a masterpiece of detail, down to his very sad, deeply ridiculous Steven Seagal ponytail; Fucked Up is worth seeing for his performance alone.

Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks Festival fields another tremendous production—exquisitely cast, cleverly designed and directed with warmth and ease by Kip Fagan—but first-among-equals here is Stess's script. Her characterizations depend on juxtaposing adolescent behavior with formal, grown-up clichés: teenagers who, after getting called out for using gendered language, apologize. “I don’t know where it started. But I want to find out. I just have to find the right literature on it.” And so-called adults aren't exempt, first trembling with immaturity and then collapsing into verbal tics and autopilot banalities. The frequent PA interruptions from principal Leonard (Colleen Werthmann) are small masterpieces of flustered misinformation—“Not to worry!” she squeaks, after telling her staff to shelter in place.

Stess and Fagan somehow create an unsafe space (one audience member had a bomb planted at his feet, which understandably gave him the twitches) that's still safe for comedy. They use our own alarmist tendencies against us; when a boy falls asleep after getting a concussion, you can feel the room lean forward, vibrating with in loco parentis anxiety. For the full 90 minutes, laughs are startled out of you, with the shock of transgression expertly orchestrated with stretches of sublime teenage idiocy. It's sweet and wicked satire in the Horatian mode: We can look at what frightens us when we're laughing at it. Horace, granted, spent less time worrying about whether or not his characters were learning their Spanish vocabulary and how to get out of gym class. But, um, those things are important, Horace. Ignoring them? That's pretty fucked up. —Theater review by Helen Shaw

Click here for discount Broadway and Off Broadway tickets.

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