Grant Shaud and Laila Robbins
in The Great War
(© Jen Maufrais Kelly)
Grant Shaud and Laila Robbins
in The Great War
(© Jen Maufrais Kelly)
EST Marathon 2008 Series B features one of the more solid line-ups of one-acts that I've seen so far in this long-running annual festival. The most well known name on the bill is playwright Neil LaBute, who offers up The Great War, about a nameless man and woman who are about to get a divorce after what the husband describes as "nine years of pretty much hell." Grant Shaud brings a sad desperation to his character, and despite his harsh words you get the feeling that he actually does still love his wife. Laila Robins, on the other hand, is blunt and cruel, making the most demeaning remarks possible, then following them up with statements like, "I don't say any of that stuff with malice." LaBute keeps the insults flying, but director Andrew McCarthy wisely allows the work's humor to shine through.

David Zellnik's Ideogram also contains a lot of laughs. The amusing premise of this short sketch is that Caucasian stock broker Jasper (Bryan Fenkart) gives his Chinese-American co-worker Drew (Pun Bandhu) a birthday card on which he's doodled made up Chinese characters. But it turns out the writing is not only actual Chinese, it's poetry. Jasper is hailed by an old Chinese woman named Wei (Siho Ellsmore) as a great poet, and she soon has him writing short stories and plays that she claims are getting productions all across China, and then being censored by the government. The playlet, directed by Abigail Zealey Bess, smartly skewers a number of Orientalist motifs even as it employs them. It also keeps a nice balance between whimsy and mystery. Is Jasper really a great Chinese writer, or is one or more of the other characters pulling his leg?

The most ambitious piece of the evening is Taylor Mac's Okay, set in the girls' bathroom during a 2003 high school senior prom. It begins with prom queen Stephanie (Susannah Flood) rushing into a stall because she's about to give birth. While she's in there, a number of other characters come in and out of the restroom, including Stephanie's best friend Jordan (Kether Donohue), a couple of girls doing drugs (Olivia Mandell and Jessica Jade Andres), a drunken teen (Johnny Pruitt), and a couple of gay boys looking to hook up (Bobby Moreno and Danny Fernandez). Several of them get to deliver disturbing, yet oddly humorous monologues that touch on everything from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 to an internet hookup involving an obese man who is missing a penis. While there's an absurdist quality to the piece, reminiscent of some of Christopher Durang's work (except a bit more twisted), there's also a strong emotional undercurrent that finds a satisfying resolution in the final encounter between Stephanie and Jordan.

In Anne Washburn's October/November, the playwright showcases a number of brief encounters between 16-year-old Nikkie (Amelia McClain) and 13-year-old David (Gio Perez). McClain tends to push a little too hard with her characterization, but Perez is wonderfully low-key, and gets to deliver a few beautifully written monologues that are poetic and tender. The piece has a nice arc, but also seems somewhat incomplete. Nikkie remains a mystery throughout, serving as more of a catalyst for David's journey. It wouldn't surprise me if this was a section of a longer play that I will, hopefully, one day get to see.

The one disappointment of the evening is the curtain-raiser, Happy Birthday, William Abernathy, written by Lloyd Suh and directed by Deborah Hedwall. It's a dialogue between the Irish-American title character (Joe Ponazecki), who is celebrating his 100th birthday, and his Korean-American great-grandson, Albert (Peter Kim). The piece hinges on a dark secret that Abernathy wants to pass on, but there's far too much exposition for such a brief piece and the message -- about the weight of shame -- seems a little too simplistic.

On a design note, the speed in which Maiko Chii's set is transformed between the separate plays is quite impressive -- particularly since each stage environment seems nicely tailored to the five individual productions.

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For TheaterMania's review of EST Marathon 2008 Series A, click here.