Ruthie Henshall and Scott Cohen inThe Other Woman 
at the EST Marathon
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Ruthie Henshall and Scott Cohen in
The Other Woman at the EST Marathon
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
There are two things you can pretty much count on with each of the Ensemble Studio Theatre's annual one-act bills. The first is that each of the programs, which usually include four pieces, will boast a solid, even a knockout work. The second is that the remaining three will probably shake down as one above average and two that don't rise appreciably over the rank of bill-filler. Such a line-up is so likely that it can almost be considered a formula, and EST's Marathon 2006 kick-off series fits the formula just about exactly.

This gem of the collection is David Ives's elegantly mysterious The Other Woman, third on the bill and directed by Walter Bobbie with a concomitant splash of sophistication. The piece is about marital fidelity and how it can be substantiated. Thomas (Scott Cohen), a novelist working late into the night on a new book, is surprised when wife Emma (Ruthie Henshall) sleep-walks into his study, expressing fear and apprehension. Next morning, when gingerly questioned by Thomas, Emma is sunny and claims to remember nothing of her ordeal. Nevertheless, the nighttime walks continue. As they do, Thomas begins to fall for this different Emma, leading to the sexiest on-stage seduction scene of the season. The play comes to a perhaps ambiguous, perhaps quite pointed conclusion about the nature of committed love.

To say much more of the proceedings, which may put some one-act fanciers in mind of a spin on Harold Pinter's The Lover, would be to spoil the suspense and the fun; but there's plenty to say about the elements involved. Ives, who in recent years has seemed to be spending more time tweaking musicals for the Encores! series than adding to his own list of acclaimed one-acts (All in the Timing, Time Flies), never likes to repeat himself and doesn't here. Neither is Bobbie repeating himself; having made a name for himself as a director of musicals, he hereby makes a transition to straight plays that should lead to many offers to helm others. (They'll have to wait until he opens the musical adaptation of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity in the fall.)

Bobbie, who was funny as a dog in a party hat when he acted in Ives's Polish Jokes, directed Ruthie Henshall in the London production of his Chicago revival. Here, he helps the performers -- who's also primarily known for tuner talents -- make a stateside transition of her own. Her Emma is graceful and likeable, timorous and tremulous. A twig next to the burly Scott Cohen, she has great appeal, and Cohen certainly gets it. The chemistry between them is strong; it's aromatic smoke rising from a test tube into which two combustible liquids have been introduced. These two leave no doubt what the pièce de résistance of Marathon 2006 Series A is.

Lloyd Suh's Not All Korean Girls Can Fly gets the program off to a reputable start. Toby (Genevieve DeVeyra) is dragged to Doctor (Jonathan Tindle) by Mother (Cindy Cheung). The terrified girl has been flying, Mother reports, and is therefore crazy. This is a diagnosis that the crazed Doctor happily confirms, and his Nurse (Amy Staats) is happy to give a supporting second opinion. Conformity within an assimilating minority group is the obvious theme here, and Suh sets up a fair amount of amusing high jinks while also making a censorious point. He even manages to venture into the realm of contemporary cinematic kung-fu fantasies with a culminating battle between Doctor and Mother. (It's staged with a wild, satirical eye by Qui Nguyen.) RJ Tolan directs the cast to achieve the right tone of outrage and amusement. The actors ably comply, clenched-haired Tingle in particular.

The Series A bill-fillers, slotted second and fourth, are an oddly matched pair of let's-test-the-gay-waters exercises. In Amy Fox's Breakfast and Bed, Eloise (Karen Young) is enjoying morning coffee when Lex (Julie E. Fitzpatrick) awakens on the strange sofa where she spent the night with Chris. Eloise explains that Chris has left for work and then asks questions about how and where the two young women met. Cagey at first about the roommate situation, Eloise eventually confides that she's Chris's mom; from then on things take a different, not necessarily believable turn toward confession and experimentation.

Amy Fox is adept at suggesting uncertainty, and director Abigail Zealy Bess is adept at bringing it out. But this play is one of the sort in which one character is made so uncomfortable by another that she almost makes it out the door but doesn't, raising the insufficiently answered query, "Why does she stay?" It also causes the audience to wonder, "Having chosen to stay, why does she go along with the unlikely actions that follow?"

Anton Dudley's Davy & Stu, a clear curtain-raiser that has been placed at the end of program for some reason, unfolds on a Scottish crag overlooking a bog. There, where monsters supposedly lurk, the eponymous 14- and 15-year-olds venture on a night when they -- and we -- sense that their young friendship will enter a more intimate phase. In this wistful sketch, gruff Stu (Kelsey Kurz, whose Scottish brogue is strangely Irish) and fragile Davey (Travis Walters) enact a distilled version of Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing.

The EST design team -- always ready with something easily and quickly adaptable for four very different plays -- consists of set and light designer Maruti Evans, costume consultant Amela Baksic, and sound designer Brian Petway. Next four, please!