Stephanie Janssen and Enver Gjokaj
in Beirut Rocks
(© Carol Rosegg)
Stephanie Janssen and Enver Gjokaj
in Beirut Rocks
(© Carol Rosegg)
Anyone concluding there's little hope for a Middle East solution won't be cheered by Israel Horovitz's slashed-from-the-headlines Beirut Rocks, which is the dolorous highpoint of the unusually rewarding EST Marathon 2007 Series B, which turns out to be one of the long-running series' best outings. Indeed, two more of the presented quintet -- Daniel Reitz's Self-Portrait in a Blue Room and Peter Sagal's Milton Bradley -- are surpassingly good; Elizabeth Diggs' Priceless is quite commendable; while only Amy Fox's Casting taps the adequate button.

In Beirut Rocks, four American students are holed up in a hotel awaiting evacuation while Israel has Lebanon under attack. With rockets whistling, irreconcilable differences escalate between golf fan Benjy (Enver Gjokaj), a Bronx Jew, and Nasa (Stephanie Janssen), a Palestinian Arab raised in Massachusetts after her Gaza-based family was killed. So those who prefer their theatrical fare politically current, there's likely nothing more currently political than Benjy and Nasa exchanging carefully balanced and calibrated views, as non-Jew Harvard student Jake (Frank Solorzano) and Stanford archeology major Sandy (Marin Ireland) try not to choose sides and as rockets symbolic of the hotel-room conflagration burst frighteningly outside.

If there's a problem with Horovitz's seething scenario, it's that the revelation Nasa makes in order to force the play's incendiary ending feels forced -- though hardly unfeasible. There's certainly nothing wrong with Jo Bonney's gritty direction or the playing of the four young actors. The always flawless Ireland is her usual stand-out self; so is the slightly less-ubiquitous Janssen. Gjokaj is super as the Tiger Woods lover enduring an increasingly unsportsmanlike day, and Solorzano is a match for him.

In Self-Portrait in a Blue Room, Larry Pine as famous painter and nervous homosexual Julian Barker and Chris Stack as Chad, his noticeably younger boyfriend, play out an unlikely but moving love scene in a White House ante-room while prepping for a medal-bestowing ritual. Subliminally addressing why liberal artists agree to be recognized by President Bush, the play is a tender look at men trying to cement a relationship when one of them, who's dying, is uncertain of anything in his celebrated life and the other is totally clear-eyed.

It could be said that calming Chad, who ties a mean four-in-hand, is a bit too good to be true, especially when slapped in the face with harmful remarks like "This is what it comes to, getting all dressed up in a suit and bringing your rent boy to meet the biggest criminal in the Western hemisphere." Nonetheless, Pine and Stack distinguish themselves with their heart- and soul-bearing under Pamela Berlin's thoughtful guidance.

There's only one thing wrong with the curtain-raiser-length Milton Bradley. This cause for much hilarity should be tagged Sophie Sapstein, because, though the already dead woman doesn't appear, she's much talked about. In the first sequence of this two-scener, Sophie's son (Jason Schuchman) describes his mother to the rabbi (Stephen Singer) about to officiate at the funeral.

The situation is that as far as young Sapstein is concerned, his mother had no redeeming qualities -- except she once won a pinochle tournament and gloated over it the rest of her life. So what's a challenged rabbi to do? In the thigh-slapping second sequence, Sagal shows precisely what.

Truth to tell, Milton Bradley is just a gag, but, as Susan Einhorn helms it and Singer and Schuchman act it, it's a jolly gag and a gleeful answer to those who've always wondered what good you say about someone about whom there's nothing good to say.

Morgan Hallett and Michael Izquierdo of Priceless are so naturally adorable as recently-weds at odds over what to do with a $100,000 inheritance that they all but disguise the playlet's debt to the kind of bickering from which Neil Simon made a soufflé in Barefoot in the Park. A cute child of privilege, Judith thinks the money should be spent on extravagances; too much of a stuffed-shirt, Robert wants to invest it. The disagreement threatens the marriage, although the outcome isn't in much doubt.

Which leaves Amy Fox's Casting, wherein fantasizing teen Haley (Sutton Crawford) worries solicitous mom Linda (Polly Adams), who's storming in and out of the girl's sanctum. Also infiltrating the room are Haley's squeeze Eddie (Noah Fleiss) and hot imaginary Latino, Ruben (Alfredo Narciso). Unfortunately, there's not much new in the working out of this adolescent crisis.