Toby Poser and Felix Solis in Why I Followed You(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Toby Poser and Felix Solis in Why I Followed You
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
There was a time when you couldn't do much with a one-act but put it on a bill with another one-act or maybe, depending on length, two or three of them. Times have changed somewhat. Nowadays, producers are happy to let a longish one-act stand on its own. A 45-minute playlet such as Caryl Churchill's Far Away, due at the New York Theater Workshop in the fall, is considered a sufficient evening of drama. And some presenters are comfortable with even shorter works, like Harold Pinter's Ashes to Ashes at 40 minutes, not to mention his Mountain Language at 20 minutes.

Nevertheless, Ensemble Studio Theatre is happy to buck this trend and continue its policy of presenting a spring series of three programs boasting four one-acts apiece, as in this year's EST Marathon 2002. Curt Dempster and company have been doing this for 25 years now. How grateful must so many playwrights be for having had 25 years worth of chances to show off their shorter works, and how appreciative audiences must be for having the opportunity at least once a year to see plays that aren't marked by that old dramaturgical bugaboo: second-act problems.

Yet it can't be said of EST that the quality of the marathons has remained on a commendably high level. Over the past few years, it has seemed as if a slightly unappealing pattern was emerging: On any program, one work was outstanding or close to it, two were acceptable if not much to write home about, and one was negligible. The head-scratching question was how, given what must have been an enormous number of submissions, could the EST staff come up with such consistently so-so fare? What were/are the criteria for selection? Have the choices been based on intrinsic merit or on favoritism? Has there been pressure to include recognizable writers even if those writers aren't at the top of their game?

Well, as of this year's inaugural series, the pattern is broken: The marathon's kick-off quartet features one well-above-average and three average entries. (This is no cause for jubilation, but neither it is cause for embarrassment.) The best of the lot is newcomer Lisa-Maria Radano's Why I Followed You. Having the effect of pages from the diary of a mad housewife, the play concerns a woman (Toby Poser) who calls herself Zelda and who is dogging an unwitting man (Felix Solis), first at a diner and then at a bar. Breaking the ice with the remark "I followed you," she proceeds to bombard the surprisingly tolerant fellow with barely comprehensible blather about herself and her stale marriage. The man, who never gets around to giving his name or explaining his tattoos, does say to her, "I'm going to have to move if you're going to be crazy." Nevertheless, he eventually asks her not only to dance but to join him in a hotel room.

The power of Radano's rambling piece is that, despite the distraught woman's being one of those people you'd avoid if you were in the man's place, the predicament is so recognizable: The wife has been unbalanced by the deprivation she's experiencing. Eventually, the need to which she confesses makes her less of a nuisance than a friend in trouble--she's Frances Conroy in Six Feet Under--and the agreeable fellow's listening to her beyond the call of duty makes him something of an everyday hero, especially since he never gets to talk about himself. That the members of this odd couple carry on heated colloquies in two public places but seem almost totally unaware that other patrons could be tuning in is a minor distraction. Had director Deborah Hedwall asked Poser and Solis (both by turns convincingly agitated and mollified) to speak low for some of the while instead of encouraging them to talk loudly and pace around tables, she might have helped the play achieve an even greater verisimilitude.

Romulus Linney tries something drastic in Lark: He takes on Willa Cather's 1915 novel The Song of the Lark and attempts to tell it in 25 minutes or less. To be fair to him, just as he means to be fair to Cather, Linney only tackles the earlier chapters. They're the ones in which Thea Kronborg (Winslow Corbett), who eventually becomes a famous opera singer, thinks she's on her way to a career as a concert pianist. Seeking that end, she's traveled to Chicago from Cather territory much farther west. "I'm a Swede from Arizona," she tells Albert Sanderson (Chris Hutchison), her piano teacher, when he becomes increasingly frustrated at her lack of keyboard progress. Only when, after months of study, she tells him that she can sing does he realize that's what she should be doing. Balking at the suggestion, Thea returns to her favorite home stalking-place, Panther Canyon, and comes to a decision amid nature's glories.

Cather's idea is to look at one of the ways in which artists are born not made. (In Thea, she was probably writing about herself.) The scoop on artists is Linney's intention as well. Getting Thea in shape, Sanderson does much hectoring, and Thea shows much emotional resistance; nevertheless, their constant confrontations demand attention. What feels hurriedly tacked on is the Panther Canyon resolution. Peter Maloney, who helmed the two-hander, has both actors sit on a stool facing upstage when they're meant to be playing the piano. Although the convention makes sense, the action would be immeasurably more effective were the actors actually playing and, in Thea's case, singing--and the play would be much more effective on the whole if Corbett and Hutchison would modulate their anger more interestingly.

In its oblique manner, Brian Silberman's Salvage Baas is a partial explanation for the international anti-American sentiment that Americans are only beginning to notice. The setting is a Nigerian junkyard where two men, Goody Aboo (Cyrus Farmer) and Moses Bobo (Geoffrey C. Ewing), are building a car from discarded parts--many of them lifted from a Chrysler owned by the late Boss Pete, who perished in a local traffic accident. Discussing Pete, the high hopes they had for a Chrysler factory, and the higher hopes instilled in them by all things American, they air resentments and vow that they will no longer rely on the U.S. for their dreams.

Startling and disturbing as all of this is, Silberman puts it forth in a roundabout way that calls for assiduous listening, and he adorns the dialogue with enough clanking symbols to outfit a percussion band. But Farmer and Ewing, the one older and wiser and the other youthfully rebellious and lackadaisical, give the script a lively read. They also speak in accents that may or may not be completely authentic but don't make their words any easier to follow. They actors are directed with clean passion by Seret Scott.

A few years back, Billy Aronson's Light Years was birthed at the Marathon and then expanded into as bad a play as Playwrights Horizons has ever mounted. The prolific Aronson is back again--as is his director, Jamie Richards--with Reunions, a playlet that could be considered a post-grad joke on the unlikable character of the earlier piece. This time, seven alumni return to campus and only partially relate to each other as they go through updates on their activities. The laugh is that one of them has become a pirate and another is a warlock. It could be that Aronson intends "pirate" to equate with "corporate executive," since they have something in common. Or maybe he doesn't. What he surely intends is to send up reunions where participants repetitively run their credits. Furthermore, he wants to giggle over plays about reunions. What he's wrought, though, is really a comedy sketch, something that Saturday Night Live would toss off in five minutes. The cast, all of whom are amusingly fatuous, includes Hope Chernov, Katherine Leask, Thomas Lyons, Grant Shaud, and Maria Gabriele. The vision of the pack of them bopping in their separate worlds as the lights dim makes for a solid sight gag to end the play.

The Series A design staff consists of Jennifer Varbalow (sets), Leslie Bernstein (costumes), Greg MacPherson (lights), and Rob Gould (sound). They keep everything to a bare minimum--partly, it's to be assumed, so that the stage can be quickly rearranged. But it's also possible that money is in short supply. Two of the series' plays call for two actors; Why I Followed You has a third (Timothy L Gallagher, probably doing someone a favor, speaks a handful of lines as a bartender). This may also have to do with keeping the budget low. Or it may have to do with playwrights, aware that budgets have to be kept low, writing accordingly.