Lights out on the 24 Hour Plays

Well, they did it: This year's 24 Hour Plays went on without a hitch and raised $360,000 for Urban Arts Partnership. It's almost midnight, and instead of cruising the after-party I'm home, blogging. So 2008.

 Watching the six finished works in a row and not in piecemeal installments was quite illuminating. The writers, who were working with specific actors in mind, tended to have them play sorta close to type, which makes sense when you think of it in context: Who has time to craft a completely new character in a few hours when you also have to worry about memorizing lines and blocking? You have to be realistic.First off, the musical interludes: Laura Bell Bundy and M. Ward may have met only a few hours before, but their country harmonies sounded like pure Nashville gold. More, please! For once I was looking forward to set changes.

 I was happy with Christina Anderson's A Post-Modern Prayer, Beau Willimon's Zusammenbruch (formerly known as Crash) and Ben Karlin's Can We Speak Candidly About the Virtues of the Internet? because they were simple, to the point, and the actors were cruising. Karlin's piece, in particular, pretty much delivered a laugh per line, and all director Lynne Meadow had to do was sit back, relax and let her cast do that talkin'. I've said this a million times before but I'll make it a million and one: The greatest pleasure of living here is seeing great actors strut their stuff onstage.

The other three plays were more challenging in different ways. Ellen Maddow channeled Maria Irene Fornes in her Molly, Nellie, Jim and Saul. It was whimsical and elliptical—not so much a play as a giant non sequitur—but it had potential. Unfortunately director Peter Ellenstein went at it too heavy-handedly instead of underplaying it. Too bad, because Elijah Wood, Pablo Schreiber, Sanaa Lathan and Diane Neal formed perhaps the strongest group of actors. (I think it's time to do a remake of Romancing the Stone and Neal would be perfect for the Kathleen Turner part. Free advice, Hollywood, free advice.)

Terrence McNally's Teachers Break and Adam Bock's Notes on Camping closed the evening, which was kind of fitting because both addressed, in radically different ways, the connection between children and adults. Set in a teachers' lounge, McNally's piece was the only one whose characters hinted at enough richness to possibly warrant a full-length play, but the whole thing also had a faintly musty feel. Its juxtaposition of profanity and pedagogy, for instance, came out like Lenny Bruce rewriting The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Cynthia Nixon and Maura Tierney did have a touching chemistry as English teachers, full of elegant reserve (few actors do inner cracks as well as Tierney), and I'd love to see them share a stage in something longer soon.

Under its goofy exterior, the extremely funny Notes on Camping turned out to be more perceptive than Teachers Break. The dramatic device of having adults play children—one of the very few purely theatrical devices tonight—was clever because it defused the penultimate scene, in which 13-year-old Jimmy (Rachel Dratch) sucks the poison out of a snakebite inconveniently located on his scoutmaster's upper thigh. Dratch's delivery of the final line was particularly poignant. (Jennifer Esposito, who I'd seen struggle with her lines in the afternoon, had also mastered her part and really created a little boy on that stage.) Beware of the clowns: They'll get you every time.