Tim Guinee and Frank Girardeau in Horton Foote's "The One-Armed Man"
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Tim Guinee and Frank Girardeau in
Horton Foote's "The One-Armed Man"
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
You have to hand it to the octogenarian playwright Horton Foote: He's so grounded in the life and lore of his native Texas that he's brimming over with story ideas. Foote has watched and listened to many local people -- or, at least, seen and wondered about them -- for close to nine decades now. He understands what drives the population in his neck of the woods, what frustrates them, what angers them. That goes some way toward explaining why his one-act piece "The One-Armed Man," which has the gritty feel of a '20s novella, is the Series C highlight in the Ensemble Studio Theatre Marathon 2005.

Cotton mill boss C.W. Rowe (Matt Mulhern) is in his Harrison, Texas office when toadying employee Pinkey Anderson (Frank Girardeau) arrives to say that Ned McHenry (Tim Guinee) is waiting outside. Rowe wants Pinkey to send Ned off with a five-dollar bill and the promise of more where that came from. But Ned, who's had his arm chewed off by one of the factory's machines, won't be mollified; he wangles his way into Rowe's presence. He wants his lost arm -- and the working-man's dignity that he lost with it -- returned. Obviously unable to return the limb, Rowe and Anderson are left to beg for mercy when Ned draws a pistol with his remaining arm.

Foote has so skillfully caught the charged situation that the air slowly congealing in the small office is practically visible; the desperation simultaneously linking and estranging the three men is practically palpable. The endlessly prolific playwright is helped in bringing off his frighteningly evocative playlet by director Harris Yulin, who understands the importance of economical movement and, with his actors, stout-heartedly serves the piece. Mulhern gets mileage out of a cocky boss who turns to mush when at the wrong end of a gun barrel, Girardeau conveys inner trembles well and begrimed Guinee is pitiable and scarifying as Ned. Additional verisimilitude is contributed by production designer Maruti Evans, costume designer Michael Bevins, and sound designer Lindsay Jones, all of whom have the traditional marathon assignment to make more from less.

In Craig Lucas' "Your Call is Important," Dolores (Betsy Aidem) addresses the audiences on the subject of a stroke-victim mother. Chatty and confiding and also given to tippling vodka, Dolores is entertaining, though rattled, company through a series of short scenes. Furthermore, she's not pretentious in the way Lucas' characters can be when the author forgets to restrain his often grandiose inclinations. The more Dolores palavers, the more information she gives about hubby Charles and the rest of her family -- including Mother, of course, who eventually succumbs. Operating on a short fuse, Dolores comes close to losing her equilibrium a few times and nearly gets into a scrape with the law. But Lucas isn't interested in exploiting her drinking problems or allowing her to break down completely. He merely wants to present the believable study of a stressed-out woman, and he achieves his goal. The result is modest, but it's thoroughly reputable and made more so by Aidem, another of those New York actors who instantly mesh with the character they're playing with no seams showing. Billy Carden, who was one of Uta Hagen's three favorite directors, sees that Aidem does Hagen-worthy performing.

The other two Series C entries fall into the category of program filler -- which ought to remain empty during an evening of plays that had to have been chosen from many candidates. Kate Long's "Gryzk" involves Meredith (Kristin Griffith), another woman who likes a nip now and then. Her poison is a pink daiquiri, which she drinks heartily from a thermos as she discusses the possible whereabouts of missing son Kevin. She also indulges fantasies of recently murdered neighbors, the Gryzks (Bill Cwikowski, Polly Adams in a wedding dress).

The more Meredith gabs with neighbor Joan (Debbie Lee Jones) and the more she flashes on the Gryzks, the more it becomes likely that their demise and Kevin's mysterious absence aren't entirely unrelated. Meredith is increasingly exposed as a mother in severe denial. What doesn't become apparent is that there's anything credible or engaging about Long's rather tedious endeavor, which is directed by Evan Bergman. (Oddly, the same block-headed-mother/psychotic-son set-up is currently on view across town at 59 E 59, where Stewart Permutt's Unsuspecting Susan, starring Celia Imrie, makes much more hay from the disturbing premise.)

Which leaves as the fourth slot Romulus Linney's puzzling item, "The Unwritten Song." For this curious piece, Linney has borrowed entries from Willard R. Trask's book of the same title, which is a collection of traditional songs the compiler found in sundry parts of the globe. The title probably refers to the songs having been passed down orally rather than in print. Whatever, Linney got the notion -- and director Carlos Armesto must agree -- that it would be effective if three actors cavorted on stage like Mexican jumping beans while exclaiming the lyrics to the songs selected from Trask's volume. Guess what: the notion isn't effective, but it sure is affected, as declaimed by William Jackson Harper, Paco Tolson, and Angel Desai. Brevity is the only saving grace.

So that's it for Marathon 2005 and its 11 new one-acts. The final tally, which stood at five for seven when Series B was unfurled, is now six for 11. Or, considering that Foote's "One-Armed Man" was introduced in 1985 by HB Playwrights Foundation, five for 10. When the Marathon is good, it's very, very good; when it's bad, it's very disappointing.