Jeffrey Barrett in Vladimir Zelevinsky’s "And Then"(Photo: Heather Joy Anderson)
Jeffrey Barrett in Vladimir Zelevinsky’s "And Then"
(Photo: Heather Joy Anderson)
Some advice for those attending a theater marathon: Bring a sandwich and back support. And drink nothing for 12 hours in advance, because if you leave for the W.C., you might have to wait another hour to get back in the theater. Nevertheless, in the case of the fifth annual Boston Theater Marathon, you still could see as many of the 45 plays as you had the stamina for, given that each 10-minute play was performed twice during the 10-hour event.

And what a treat the event was! The thought that there are this many playwrights in New England -- and adventurous theaters sponsoring them -- is inspiring. Among the authors represented at the April 13 marathon were newcomers such as Norman Laska and old hands such as Robert Brustein (founder of the Yale Repertory Theater and Cambridge's American Repertory Theater) and Israel Horovitz (of Gloucester Stage). The event included well known regional theaters such as ART and the Huntington as well as smaller, newer companies such as Industrial Theatre; actors both union and non-union; plays by African-American, Caucasian, and Asian writers; plays about families, love, war, disability, gambling, and more.

Most of the playwrights seemed to go for humor, sometimes dark humor, as in the case of Dana Yeaton's "The Ten-Minute Dad," which was presented by Pilgrim Theatre. A few plays -- for example, "Hit Me," Patrick Cleary's story of a violent young man who has gone too far -- were not meant to be funny at all. Never knowing what to expect, the audience of friends and theater people were prepared to empathize, laugh, and be entertained, waiting quietly in hallway lines between the five-play sets to get into one of the Boston Playwrights' Theatre's two studios.

No reviewer could do justice to all 45 plays. (As concert comedian Anna Russell used to say in her Edith Piaf impersonation, "If you do anything too much, even if eet ees nice...eet ees too much.") So here is a sampling:

In "The Great Audience Rebellion," written and directed by Michael Hammond and sponsored by Berkshires-based Shakespeare & Company, the "regular theatergoing audience" submits a manifesto to a stereotypical producer (Joe Pacheco), announcing that it is fed up with so-called American theater and will no longer attend. The audience is tired of plays sounding like "social work and reminding us of the stuff we'd just as soon forget." The producer summons the playwright (Jason Asprey), who says he can't possibly come up with a creative solution and may just "go home and kill myself." Sensing a dramatic coup, the producer cries, "You'd do that!?" After angry jousting about who should kill himself, they decide to have that evening's audience determine who's most responsible for the theater's sorry state. One can't help wondering: Perhaps it's the audiences themselves, the people who pay big bucks for rehashed chestnuts?

Brustein's "Noise," directed by David Wheeler, is an agreeable father/son story reminiscent of early Arthur Miller and underscoring the contrast between first-generation immigrants trying to put a pastrami sandwich on the table and second-generation idealists who are moved by the arts. A family is living in the apartment above the even more recent immigrant Rachmaninoff, so the art that the father and son argue about is music -- "noise," according to the father. The production had none of the off-the-wall or arch qualities of many other ART offerings. Will Lebow offered a sure and subtle characterization of a father worrying about the impractical artist son at home (charmingly played by Brady Gill) and the son fighting Hitler overseas.

In Kirsten Greenidge's "Grip," two elderly African-American women hold fast to favorite memories. As in the 1970s British play Home, the audience realizes only gradually -- quite a feat in 10 minutes -- that the women are confined to a soul-constricting rest home. This entry was sponsored by the Our Place Theatre Company, directed by Dan Milstein, and affectingly acted by Stephanie Marson-Lee and Valencia Hughes-Imani.

Greg Lam's "Happy Daughter," presented by Raven Theatrical and directed by Kevin Fennessy, was a hoot. A young Chinese writer called Carol, living in Iowa, gets a visit from her mother. Mom, whom Carol believes should behave like a Chinese mom from central casting, shows up with a boyfriend; not only that, he's Caucasian, very handsome, and decades younger. Carol is stunned. "She didn't get the memo," Carol complains in an aside. "She's supposed to stay home and play mahjong." Instead, mom is singing karaoke, giggling with the beau over their special drink, and holding hands. Bernice Sim played the bemused daughter, while Bonnie Lee Whang and Kent French were the couple who shake up her preconceptions. French, an excellent cabaret singer in real life, was very funny in an off-key karaoke rendition of the Elvis tune "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"

Richard McElvain in Ronan Noone’s"Amereka," sponsored by Sugan Theater
Richard McElvain in Ronan Noone’s
"Amereka," sponsored by Sugan Theater
About the marathon's staff and volunteers: To put on 45 plays in 10 hours requires miraculous timing and logistics. Lights, sound effects, sets, props, costumes, and makeup were kept to a minimum, with just enough in the way of tech rehearsals to avoid major glitches. The backstage crew performed like a well-oiled machine. Ushers quietly seated new people as others left. The performers' unions gave special dispensations; the Humanities Foundation of Boston University provided funding; and the event raised money for the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund, which helps theater people with emergency medical needs and the like.

A total of 315 scripts were submitted by last November's deadline. After the Boston Theater Marathon (Kate Snodgrass, artistic director) selected the 2003 winners, synopses of all 45 were faxed to participating New England theaters on the same day. Having read the synopses, the administrators of each theater picked a show they wanted to mount and received assignments on a first-come, first-served basis.

The brilliance of that approach is evident if you compare the Boston Theater Maraton with other contests that foster new playwriting. When the New Ehrlich (which was housed in the South End's Boston Center for the Arts some years ago) had such a competition, a playwright was lucky to have five people in the audience besides family members. There were no crowds waiting in hallways back then. But because the BTM winners are each sponsored by a different theater, supporters of those companies come en masse to applaud or help out. The results are auspicious for New England theater and for contemporary playwriting in general. It's truly amazing how a complete, affecting story can be conveyed in 10 minutes.