The new venue for this year's Theatre Community Benevolent Fund benefit changed the atmosphere a bit from the six previous wild and crazy marathons. Theatergoers found not hard benches but comfortable seats and plenty of them at the Calderwood Pavilion's Virginia Wimberly Theatre in Boston's South End; actors and crews encountered new rules against popping out of the wings to chat with friends. But if the seat-of-the pants scrappiness of the past was missing, the old electric atmosphere inevitably recharged itself.
The participants with long, respected careers included playwright Israel Horovitz of the Gloucester Stage Company, whose sure and subtle touch nailed a slice of life in "The Fat Guy Gets the Girl." Veteran Robert Brustein, founder of the American Repertory Theatre, played the aging Beacham in his own play "Beacham's Last Poetry Reading" with Karen MacDonald as his wife, suffering from Tourette's syndrome and shouting obscenities from the audience.
Among the other familiar faces, the remarkable Bobbie Steinbach -- often seen performing Shakespeare -- played a Russian hotel maid who finds a diamond earring in the New Repertory Theatre's entry, by Joyce Van Dyke. As ever, Steinbach became the character. So did Irene Daly as the flummoxed wife of a dumpy 38-year-old (Rick Park) who feels good for the first time in years after stopping a mugger and deciding to be a superhero in "The Amazing Adventures of Captain Normal," by Joshua Rollins. This Súgán Theatre production was directed by Brendan Hughes. In Patrick Gabridge's "Flight" (directed by Melissa J. Wentworth for the Out of the Blue Theater Company), Karen Woodward Massey was effective as a stressed-out career woman trying to "rescue" a laid-back Alisha Jansky.
Interestingly, the versatile Keith Mascoll, who radiated energy last year as a hip-hop punk, was unrecognizable as an aging, middle-class philanderer in Frank Shefton's "The Place We Met," sponsored by the New African Company under the direction of Vincent Ernest Siders, with Cheryl Singleton as the vengeful wife. Unfamiliar to this reviewer was Karen "Mal" Malme, who gave a thoughtful, understated performance as a World Trade Center survivor and consummate city woman on a canoe trip in Ginger Lazarus's "October." The play, directed by Renee C. Farster for Queer Soup Theater, also featured Kim Hoff as an outdoor woman. Andrew Sarno, Claude Del, and Dan Fitzpatrick exuded wacky vitality as they swung from ropes in the Shadowboxing Theatre Workshop's "The Lemonade Stand at the End of the Earth," written by R. Brad Smith and directed by Michelle Aguillon.
For good fun, director Spiro Veloudos's Lyric Stage Company is generally a sure bet, and this year was no exception. In Ted Reinstein's "The Interrogation," actors Michael Fennimore, Caroline Lawton, and Neil A. Casey hoodwinked playgoers into thinking that the story was about a police interrogation of a latte-loving perp when, in fact, it was a training session with a cop who's into method acting. Another reliably entertaining group is the Rough & Tumble Theatre Company, which presented a Dilbert-like take on office inanity titled "Mondays and Other Days." Kristin Baker was a hoot as she played against George Saulnier III's impassive, suffering officemate.
One new playwright is John Andert; his "Summertime" conveyed the aspirations of a blue-collar guy (Will McGarrahan as Steve) who will likely never become the singer he longs to be. The Village Theatre Project presented Andert's play, and Julie Jirousek directed. Another newbie, Christopher Lockheardt, wrote the Zeitgeist Stage Company's airport-lounge entry "What Happens in Vegas," in which strangers with contrasting personalities argue the pros and cons of telling their spouses about affairs.
Among the several serious-themed plays in the festival was David Splinter's "The Flood." Presented by CityWorks Theater Company, this moving piece concerns the rising tide of AIDS in the developing world. Another group worthy of mention is the Provincetown Theatre Company, which presented Dan Blask's "Lean Love City." Steve Barkhimer directed Richard Arum, Ciaran Crawford, and Stephen Beaudoin in a gentle comedy about a straight guy getting two gay men back together after harassing one of them over a friendship with his wife.
But the most convincing and affecting romance in the festival was the Horovitz play, a wondrous little gem directed by Paula Plum. Rick Doucette played Binky, and Emme Shaw gave a gradually deepening performance as Cheryl. To say that there was much sweetness to this love story is not to say that there was anything sticky about it; with an expert hand, Horovitz turned what began as a bawdy comedy into a quiet statement about the triumph of love over appearances.