Summer Shorts

A new festival tests our short attention span.

COMMITMENT PHOBIA Niece Cannon,right, dreams of sending crazy auntRoberts away.

COMMITMENT PHOBIA Niece Cannon,right, dreams of sending crazy auntRoberts away. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

Do not believe the hype: Shorts are not flattering. They’re awkward at the best of times, comfortable in summer but making otherwise attractive prospects seem stubby and unfinished. Almost no one looks good in them.

I refer, of course, to the theatrical short. Everywhere you look this summer there is a festival of one-acts, each hoping that what works in literature (those little gems in The Paris Review!) will work onstage. Audiences go with vacation-time attention spans, and playwrights hope to showcase their work without the hassle of inventing an act break. But a short can be an ugly fit. In Summer Shorts, a two-part, nine-play event at 59E59, the form manages to hobble some of our cleverest playwrights.

In Series A, the lineup pokes a sharp stick in your eye right away. Michael Domitrovich’s Real World Experience imagines a reality show about artists trying to strike it rich. The capable J.J. Kandel, who also coproduced the festival, squeezes some laughs from his character, a rabbity dramatist, and there’s some good early snarkiness when a hunky actor type (David Marcus) waxes pompous about his “craft.” But the piece feels insultingly slapped together, dog-paddling from joke to joke. (Of which there are two.) Sadly, the work is also desperately underrehearsed—by the time femme fatale Nicole LaLiberté teeters unsteadily onstage, we are ready to pull the plug.

Clearly, the more experienced the playwright, the more deft the piece. Warren Leight won a 1999 Tony for Side Man, and he knows how to whip up a character, abbreviate a structure and bow out with a rim shot at the end; director Evan Yionoulis is equally confident. In fact, Amici, Ascoltate—in which a man (Tony Campisi) reminisces about his family’s involvement in the military—feels so snug and competent, you may long for messiness. In Afternoon Tea, Eduardo Machado at least tries something audacious: He throws caution to the winds and presents a musical about Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie breaking scones with his whiny wife. Unfortunately, the dialogue is utterly absurd—thudding to earth like disbelieving Lost Boys. No one can listen to an exchange such as “It’s cold.” [Beat] “Like your dreams” without desperately wishing for the hook.

Fortunately, Leslie Lyles has invented a bar-cum-Neverland that actually takes wing. Her discombobulating Rain, Heavy at Times, about a batty aunt and her battier niece, feels rather like going on a drunken bender with the damaged characters from Grey Gardens. Lyles throws her entire toolbox at us, including a hilarious answering-machine-message aria for Mark Elliot Wilson, and plenty of nuttiness for the raptor-sharp Judith Roberts. But as the niece, the exquisitely dizzy Stephanie Cannon tunes her attention to some extraterrestrial frequency and elevates the experience past the ridiculous and into the sublime.

Series B may not hit the same lows, but its best offering (Keith Reddin’s Merwin’s Lane) rates only a mild buzz on the pleasure meter. The choice is practically existential: Will you suffer at Series A for Ms. Cannon’s moment of greatness, or do you prefer to settle into B’s reliable hum? Given its neat, one-twist plot, it’s awfully difficult to get excited about the Reddin piece—despite another sturdy performance by J.J. Kandel as a Marine who gets fleeced at the bus station. Once we spot the gag, the fun is over.

Brevity is not just the soul of wit; it is also deliverance from the witless. In Randee Smith’s underwhelming Windowshine—a “speak the subtext and it will sound like poetry” experiment—the end is always mercifully close. The same goes for John Augustine’s dull Father’s Day, which wastes the clever performer Catherine Curtin, playing a grief counselor and bereaved friend who has finally run out of patience. Her snappish phone messages—“Hi? I’m a friend of Kevin’s. He’s dead.”—keep us going long after the story has taken a turn for the cliché.

The most recognizable Series B writers—Tina Howe and Tom O’Brien—manage the sweetest turns. O’Brien sends up an officious film production assistant (Ean Sheehy), and Howe riffs on Greek mythology. Sadly, neither has an efficient idea for an ending. After a successful first half, O’Brien trots out the metatheatrical trickery (Sheehy’s PA may be insane, or simply conscious that he’s in a play), squashing the larkiness out of a darling amuse-bouche. Howe keeps her focus tighter, playing a variation on Ovid’s girl-meets-boy, girl-becomes-tree myth by setting it on the subway. The short form is all Howe needs: It doesn’t take much to tell a New Yorker that the MTA is in desperate need of a metamorphosis.

59E59 (Off-Off Broadway). By various authors and directors. With ensemble casts.