Bruce MacVittie and Amy Irving in "The Great Pretenders"
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Bruce MacVittie and Amy Irving in
"The Great Pretenders"
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
If it's spring, it must be time for the Ensemble Studio Theatre Marathon of one-act plays. This year brings the determined company's 27th such outing, and it seems to be packed with more heavyweights than usual. The first of the three series includes works by John Guare, Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, Warren Leight, and Leslie Lyles; set to follow in Series B and C are David Mamet, David Lindsay-Abaire, Horton Foote, Craig Lucas, and Romulus Linney. Yet if Series A (which resumes performances on Thursday, June 2) is any indication, this may not be the year for consistently heavyweight work.

Indeed, there's little point in sitting through the first half of the program other than to get to the second half. Lyles, whose play "The Great Pretenders" has wisely been saved for last, achieves painfully emotional moments in this story of the fractious contact between a long-divorced man and woman who are about to fly to their son's funeral. Anna (Amy Irving) tries to make peace with Bobby (Bruce MacVittie), but the circumstances of their failed marriage -- mental problems kept their son Jackie (Haskell King) in an Ohio home for years -- stand in the way. The power of the piece stems from Lyles' understanding that fragile marriages have trouble withstanding everyday troubles, let alone the major issue of a severely disturbed child. Her sympathy with Anna and Bobby is never dips into sentimentality; it extends to their younger selves (played by Foss Curtis and J.J. Kandel) as well as to Jackie, who delivers a handful of tough-tender monologues about his wish to be normal.

Lyles knows that, in such a predicament, there can be reconciliation without healing. So sensitive to the material are the actors, directed with no excess fuss by Billy Hopkins, that they make the airport reunion painfully honest. As a woman who's feels there must have been a better way to handle her problems, one that she never found, Irving is especially effective; this is a performance of a heartbreakingly high caliber. King's Jackie is also very well played.

Immediately preceding the Lyles piece, Leight offers one full of double-edged giggles. In "Mr. Morton Waits for His Bus," Officer Sheehy (Ean Sheehy -- yes, the actor and the character share a surname) is baby-sitting the corpse of the eponymous Mr. Morton (Donald Symington), who died while making his convertible bed. Trapped in a line of duty that he finds demeaning, Officer Sheehy talks out loud to himself while waiting for the police bus to arrive and carry his deceased charge away. The son of an officer and uncertain about his career choice, Sheehy paces the cluttered tenement studio created by Series A production designer Maruti Evans while attempting to come to terms with who he knows himself to be. He also handles an unexpected development from the inert Mr. Morton's direction.

Both Sheehy and Symington handle the macabre comedy easily, aided by director Andrew McCarthy. (Yes, that Andrew McCarthy!) One quibble: In the back left-hand pocket of his police uniform, Officer Sheehy sports a red handkerchief, which in gay circles might still be a signal of a particular sexual interest. Although this emblem is not absolutely at odds with Leight's narrative, its presence skews the playwright's intentions. If Officer Sheehy has something to hide, this isn't the way to show it.

Only a couple of weeks ago John Guare was given an Obie Award for sustained excellence, but now he's run into some trouble sustaining it. Guare is known for writing quickly -- and there's nothing wrong with that if, in going with the flow, he's tapped into a rich dramatic vein. It may be possible that if he'd written "Madagascar" even more quickly -- i.e., had made it shorter -- he would have done audiences a favor. Carrie (Amy Love) and Greg (Remy Auberjonois) too swiftly wear out their welcome in this work about people who are trapped in their lives. (Interesting that the short play shares a title with a current, big-budget animated film.)

Guare's perceptive point is that just as some people are captive to their eroding existences, others choose to remain caught. To demonstrate, he has Carrie address unseen yard-sale attendees in a long opening monologue that neither Love nor director Will Pomerantz manage to make interesting. Then Guare turns Carrie and Greg -- initially a lovey-dovey couple whose last name is Madagascar and who are supposedly moving out of a town called Madagascar -- into psychotics haunted by damaging pasts. These two aren't likable to begin with, and keeping them intriguing or even believable through a series of increasingly bleak scenes proves impossible.

There isn't much to say about Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros's "The Airport Play," which is directed by Shirley Kaplan. Anne (Ann Talman), another tense woman at an airport, has her reading interrupted by Hari (Edward Hajj), who claims to know that the author of Anne's self-help book is a fraud. The persistent Hari is slowly breaking through to the woman when her flight is announced and she vacates her seat for another traveler.

So far, the EST Marathon score is two for four, with seven more to come. Here's hoping the company's batting average improves.