Watching the pair of Dutch Kills Theater Company one-acts now at Ars Nova can feel a bit like a game of name-those-influences. Where are playwrights getting their ideas these days? If we can judge by these two brief pieces, the answer is surprisingly retro. Ben Beckley's Latter Days feels like an early draft of a Samuel Beckett play, and Jean Ann Douglass's The Providence of Neighboring Bodies will remind you of our absurdist-in-chief Edward Albee. Maybe the one-act form will never escape Albee and Beckett—it's not easy to avoid the masters when you're trying to craft something short and sharp.
Both are beautifully produced in repertory: the hour-long shows share a director (Jess Chayes), a designer (Carolyn Mraz) and a space (Ars Nova). Of the pair, Bodies is the stronger piece, a surprising and wicked little concoction. Douglass's comedy makes an odd little love-triangle out of three women trying to become chums; as Albee did so violently to the sanctity of families, Douglass does to female friendships.
Dora (Lori Parquet) is hugely over-invested in cozying up to her apartment neighbor Ronnie (Amy Staats), who is in turn obsessed with Jane (Dinah Berkeley), a stranger paying to crash on her couch. This three-way need for connection ratchets up over a fraught weekend, and when Jane turns out (in true absurdist fashion) to be a beaver, the sisterhood frays. Douglass's play seems like a sweet little woodland creature, but it's got needle-like claws: every kind gesture ends in some calamity, and the two human women operate from cowardice or possessiveness, usually simultaneously. Douglass has a fine poetic ear (referring to coffee, Dora wonders at “Muck as a final tasting note to all this pleasure!”) and the actors are full of comic invention. Staats, who replaced another actor on short notice, was still using a script, and it was charming to watch her laughing to herself as the other two performed. It was impossible not to laugh, really. Bodies is richly amusing, despite its strain of darkness.
Latter Days is also well performed, but Beckley's play is too much of-a-piece with the works it emulates—at its worst, it can feel derivative. A madman called The King (Tony Torn), convinced he's about to rise godlike from his obscurity, harasses his factotum and sole worshipper, Dead Bill (Will Dagger). For the last 11 years, the King has been moldering in a basement, sitting on a toilet-throne, festering in his velvet robes. (Kate Fry designed his stunning outfit, which looks like Thomas Cromwell had to dress himself out of a trash heap.) The garbage-royalty motif is reminiscent of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, and we've seen these little rituals and abuses between Beckett's all-too-similar Hamm and Clov. Torn has wonderfully grumpy quality, and he and Dagger have a strong rapport. But you should wait to see them in an Endgame revival—that would be an apotheosis indeed.
Theater 511 at Ars Nova (Off-Off Broadway). By Jean Ann Douglass and Ben Beckley. Directed by Jess Chayes. With ensemble casts. The Providence of Neighboring Bodies: 55mins. Latter Days: 1hr 10mins. No intermission. Performed in repertory through March 11. Click here for full ticket and venue information.
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