As the Bard taught us, "Brevity is the soul of wit." At Ensemble Studio Theatre, wit seems to also be the soul of brevity. Five comedies make up Series C of EST's 34th Marathon of One Act Plays. None of the plays take us to incredibly emotional heights, but their distinct comedic voices (paired with some creatively designed sets by Nick Francone) make for a well-balanced and engaging afternoon of entertainment.
The series kicks off with Murray Schisgal's campy two-hander, Existence, directed by Peter Maloney. Izzy and Lulu (Richmond Hoxie and Kristin Griffith) play a martini-guzzling middle-aged couple who spend the first half of the play bathing in a long list of their personal and financial successes, and the second half confessing to each other an even longer list of failures. Griffith channels a young Madeline Kahn, prancing around her luxurious house in a red ball gown shouting "dawling!" as she throws herself on the short and stocky Hoxie, her comically mismatched sugar-daddy husband. Any longer, and the overdramatic style would become grating, but as a one-act it's a fun 20-minute warm-up for the audience.
It is somewhat jarring, however, to transition from this comic throwback to Clare Barron's Solar Plexus, a compilation of every quintessential comedic device in the toolbox of contemporary 20-something humor: sex, cursing, yoga — this play has it all. Directed by Nelson Eusebio, the scene depicts the young couple, Joe and Stacey (Bradley Anderson and Abigail Gampel), who suffer from Boring Relationship Syndrome. While at a party, they meet a woman named Mallery (Diana Ruppe) who teaches them how to release their sexual inhibitions through her pseudo-eastern energy exercises. Anderson and Gampel both deliver the comedy of the scene well, but the risqué content, unfortunately, comes across as gratuitous in the limited confines of a one-act with limited opportunity for character development.
Christopher Sullivan's Carry the Zero sticks with this theme of sex and modern relationships, but shifts our attention to the teenage experience rather than that of the post-collegiate crowd. He plants us in the middle of an awkward car ride with Marc and Nicole (Alex Herrald and Megan Tusing), a pair of inarticulate high schoolers who have just had their first taste of the hook-up culture that will plague their dating lives for years to come. Both give strong performances — Herrald, a loveable stoner-type and Tusing, taking on a persona reminiscent of the tomboyish Ellen Page from the film Juno. For a scene depicting one of the most unfortunate aspects of today's youth culture, I give Sullivan (and director Robert Saenz de Viteri) kudos for finding its endearing spirit.
The showstoppers of the series, however, come back-to-back in the second half. Zero by Tommy Smith is by far the most cleverly constructed of the five plays. With direction by William Carden, Curran Connor gives a standout performance as a 32-year-old architect who moves into a new apartment on a year-long architecture grant. Daily encounters with his observant doorman (Shanga Parker) peel back the layers of this philandering, binge-drinking, and pot-smoking mess of a character. Days fly by as Conner does laps around a partition — one moment joyfully inebriated, the next, rocking a pair of morning-after sunglasses. These brief meetings, sometimes only seconds long, mold an impressively nuanced, three-dimensional character who we almost can't believe we met less than 30 minutes ago.
Jon Kern's Hate the Loser Inside, directed by R.J. Tolan, is as close to a big finish as you could imagine for a series of one-acts. Brad Bellamy wins the award for comedic performance of the day as college football national championship coach Donny Broadhaus. He has been recruited to shoot a local commercial for a kitchen furnishing company, an experience that quickly devolves into a more aggressive version of Lucy Ricardo's Vitameatavegemin catastrophe.
With the exception of an occasional interaction between Coach Broadhaus and the commercial's director Wendell (the charmingly twerpy Graeme Gillis), Bellamy commandeers the floor for a hilarious 20-minute one-man show. He spirals into raging fits of self loathing like a grand finale at a fireworks display: throwing breakfast dishes, squeezing the bejeezus out of a grapefruit, and spouting off some of the most creative profanities I've ever had the privilege of hearing — a perfect button to this lineup of thoroughly entertaining performances.