Ean Sheehy, David Deblinger, and Richmond Hoxie
in Sundance
(© Zack Brown)
Ean Sheehy, David Deblinger, and Richmond Hoxie
in Sundance
(© Zack Brown)
After an unimpressive start last month, the 2009 festival of one-act plays at the Ensemble Studio Theatre continues with a Series B, which is somewhat closer to the high quality one has come to expect from this annual undertaking.

Leslie Ayvazian (Nine Armenians) gets things started with a curtain-raiser called Carol & Jill in which she and Janet Zarish play longtime friends who are pushing 60 and exploring new depths to their relationship while on holiday with their unseen husbands. It's light on plot but rich with laughs, especially when the performances are as grounded and dimensional as they are here under the direction of Daniella Topol. Jill (Zarish) is a high-octane type whose idea of taking it easy is scaling Machu Picchu. Her more squeamish actress friend Carol (Ayvazian) is more likely to confine her adventures to the stage. But there's an honest connection between the two, and while the performers here could use slightly more chemistry in the climactic moment of the piece, they still manage to deliver lovely portrayals of two devoted friends.

The other highlight of the evening is an overlong but very funny piece called Sundance, a satire on violence written by M. Z. Ribalow, who, it would seem, has sat through one too many Westerns for his own taste. The cowboys here have a penchant for spouting literary devices and sitting around philosophizing about their motives for killing people. Hickock (the hilariously deadpan Richmond Hoxie) insists that the men and women he shoots down are bad people. "Civilization is a fragile thing," he declares. "We have to have those who will protect it by meeting its enemies on their own terms." Hickock's sparring partners (verbally and otherwise) are his more obviously sadistic friend Jesse (the ever-reliable David Deblinger) and an anarchy-loving firebrand called the Kid (J. J. Kandel). Also weighing in is a new stranger in town, the eponymous Sundance portrayed by a brooding, compelling Rob Sedgwick. Sundance's violent motives turn out to be the most chilling of all and the playwright's outlook for the world does not end up being too cheerful. But director Matthew Penn gets bright performances from all of his actors, including Ean Sheehy, whose spineless barkeep manages to spin natural cowardice into a profound outlook on life.

In Jeanne Dorsey's Blood from a Stoner, David Margulies is so good as an aging Bohemian lunching with his grown daughter (Patricia Randell) that it takes a while to realize that there's not much to the script. Director Maria Mileaf draws respectable performances from her other two actors (including Thomas Lyons as a well-meaning waiter), but the playwright's characterizations are too stereotypical -- cranky old guy from Brooklyn, frustrated daughter, wisdom-dispensing waiter -- to sufficiently care about them.

Less successful are the two remaining one-acts. Billy Aronson's Little Duck tries to be a cute satire on the world of children's television programming, but is instead a confusing tale overloaded with characters (on- and off-stage) and plot devices. It's one of those comedies in which, when there's nowhere else to take a scene, a character pulls out a hand puppet and starts doing naughty things with it.

Cassandra Medley tries something utterly more somber with Daughter, a short if overly bombastic drama about a young woman named Monique who is grievously disfigured during combat in Iraq. The fact that that the soldier, played by Kaliswa Brewster, is black offers a potentially strong theme, but the play is too obvious and its dialogue too choppy and unconvincing to be effective.