The two most effective pieces in this collection, "90 Days" by Elizabeth Merriwether and "Fun" by Mark Schultz, both nimbly directed by Evan Cabnet, could have been written a decade or more ago, with no diminution of impact. Moreover, each could be -- and, one hopes, will be -- the germ of a full-length play somewhere down the line.
Patch Darragh is the delight and driving force behind each of the works. In "90 Days" he plays Elliot, a rehab resident chatting on the phone with his chirpily supportive girlfriend, Abby (unseen Rebecca Henderson). Whatever Elliot's intoxicant of choice, we know right off the bat that he's an unregenerate liar: When Abby suggests phone sex, he fakes it while continuing to munch Tater Tots. A certain "Brody" keeps cropping up in Abby's end of the conversation: He works at The Atlantic, has a piece in The New Yorker -- and you can guess what else he might be up to. But Merriwether is a master of the slow buildup, even in this 15-minute format, and her imagery is sui generis and enticingly strange.
In "Fun," Darragh plays a veteran porn actor, Grady, trying to acclimate a skittish newbie, Jamie (wide-eyed Dreama Walker). The topical angle here is that the unseen director pulls his scenarios from the headlines: "We're doin' Eastern Europe today." Jamie demurs that she doesn't "do sex"; she's into "specialty stuff ... niche things." While working to break down her barriers, Grady -- springy as an ADD kid off Ritalin -- engages in a bit of psychodrama that dredges up a disturbing past. Like Merriwether, Schultz's skill lies in the art of sidelong allusiveness. What he doesn't say has even more power than what's spelled out.
Of the three remaining pieces, Judith Thompson's "Nail Biter" -- about a Canadian intelligence agent (Jesse Hooker) recalling an interview with a 15-year-old accused terrorist at Guantanamo -- is the most straightforwardly headline-derived, and also the least revelatory. The account, colored by the witness's residual guilt over his inability to intercede, packs no surprises; moreover, the entire monologue is delivered from a static, seated position (though the fingertips receive their due penance).
Gina Gionfriddo's "America's God Tragedy" is a mock game-show pitting a dead National Guardsman (Hooker), a recent casualty of Iraq, against Britney Spears (Walker) in a pity-points smackdown. Henderson plays the judge, a classics professor revolted both by the show's premise and by the pandering antics of the smarmy, ignorant emcee (David Ross), and she gets in plenty of disgusted digs. Despite its flaws, Gionfriddo draws some intriguing parallels between its two star-crossed believers in the American Dream.
The closer, Adam Rapp's "Tone Unknown," concerns a snarky TV journalist/opportunist (Henderson) and her cameraman (Darragh) who brave the backwoods to record a legendarily reclusive rock guitarist (Hooker) playing his "Rapture" riff, which is guaranteed to induce euphoria. They take along a ringer (Ross) to provide a video simulacrum in case the musician proves uncooperative. It's a lively little skit, enjoyable primarily for the chance to witness Henderson playing super-bitch again.