Ken Forman and Monique Vukovicin I Want You To(Photo © Eric Maierson)
Ken Forman and Monique Vukovic
in I Want You To
(Photo © Eric Maierson)
A genuinely satisfying pair of one-acts is playing at the Paradise Theater downtown under the umbrella title I Want You To. The first of these plays gives the evening its name and also sets its tone, exploring the awkwardness of not-quite-couples in their first moments alone together. Fortunately, the direction of the title piece by author Eric Maierson highlights the strengths of the script in the way that many writer-directed shows do not; we are left smiling and shaking our heads at the characters' foibles, fears, and resilience.

As I Want You To opens, we're immediately concerned about Michael (Ken Forman), a frumpy man who is sitting in his apartment and clipping his nails. His demeanor conveys not just anxiety but a deep self-loathing that unspools when Anna -- played by Monique Vukovic, whose performance in Jay DiPietro's Peter and Vandy was a downtown standout -- knocks on the door.

Anna's entrance is especially worrisome in that a video camera on a tripod has been set up prominently in Michael's living room. We soon learn that Anna is here for a rather casual screen test for a movie that Michael is shooting, but their rapport is even more strained than might be expected in such a situation. The interaction leading up to Michael's apparent filming of Anna is among the most exquisitely agonizing sequences I've seen onstage in some time; the ideas behind it are not wholly surprising or unpredictable, but the immediacy with which they're rendered are riveting. Laughter ensues as the building tension demands release.

When Michael serves Anna a sandwich, causing her to recoil, we learn that both of these folks have food issues. When the conversation turns to sex, things become more honest and terrifying: Anna's bluntness allows the pair to emerge somewhat from their fetal emotional postures. Michael's eventual revelation of his intentions is simultaneously hilarious and excruciating.

The script's elliptical dialogue, which conveys subtext in broken exchanges, works because it's so well directed; still, we don't always know where these unfinished sentences are going. That's frustrating, but Maierson utilizes Pinteresque pauses better than most developing playwrights, conveying the inherently incomplete nature of real communication. As Michael and Anna, Forman and Vukovic perform the kind of magic that only gifted actors can; both deserve recognition and a shot at a larger showcase for their talents. At the end of the show, we admire what's been done on such a small budget.

The second piece of the evening, Fear and Friday Night, feels at times like a watered-down version of the title play, but it has its own touching, surprising, and comical moments. Written by Lawrence Levine, Fear also takes place in an apartment living room. This time, the place belongs to Brett (Jicky Schnée), who is being visited by Sam (Grant Varjas), someone she recently met.

The play begins haltingly and takes a few turns that we don't expect. Both Schnée and Varjas have intriguing looks that would likely work very well on film, and serve them in good stead here. Fear and Friday Night has been directed without the same precision and intensity of the previous piece, yet it is engaging enough to be a standout at the typical new-play festival. And it offers some fearlessly personal moments before ending in cliché. Overall, I Want You To has much to fascinate the intrepid theatergoer.