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David Greenspan in Alien Boy
Norman Mailer once wrote that short stories are much harder to craft than novels because a short story has to be perfect. The same might be said about one-acts versus full-length plays. If a full-length play isn't hitting on all of its cylinders, it may sputter but it still has the potential to take the audience on a journey. If a one-act isn't hitting on its single cylinder, it's just going to die. Ensemble Studio Theatre's track record in the short form is impressive. If it wasn't, we wouldn't be in the midst of Marathon 2000, EST's 23rd annual festival of new one-act plays.

EST has traditionally offered playwrights that are both upcoming and established the opportunity to build smaller engines that might yet take audiences on far-ranging trips of imagination. Less a tradition than a pragmatic arrangement, EST also usually spreads its biggest drawing cards fairly evenly between its three different series of one-acts. For instance, Series A featured a new one-act by Leslie Ayvazian, Series B featured a new one by David Ives, and Series C was highlighted by a short piece by Warren Leight. Well-known actors are scattered more or less evenly throughout the three different series as well, making each group of plays additionally--and equally--attractive. EST also spreads the quality around; usually one or two short plays zoom, while the remainder, well, don't.

In Series C, running through June 11, EST holds true to form. Sideman playwright Warren Leight's The Final Interrogation of Ceausescu's Dog is a quick piece of political satire that is as entertainingly witty as it is sharply pointed. This two-hander includes an interrogator (Ean Sheehy) and his prisoner (Alexander R. Scott), the latter sitting under the glare of a bare light bulb. At first it appears as if the prisoner is an unapologetic lackey for the deposed Romanian dictator, Ceausescu. Slowly, if you happened to look at the program before the lights went down, you realize that the play's title is hilariously literal. It is, in fact, Ceausescu's dog who is being barraged with accusatory questions about the luxury of his existence while people starved. The canine never believes that his master is dead, no matter how many times he is told; his loyalty is comically chilling, just like the piece itself. Tightly directed by Jack Hofsis, it is also exceptionally well acted, with a particular pat on the head to Scott, who, as the son of George C. Scott and Coleen Dewhurst, has a pedigree of his own.
From Birth Marks
The other four longer pieces are largely about parents and children, and two of them are, unfortunately, stillborn. Cannibals by Heather Dundas is a heavy-handed metaphor for the ways in which children devour their parents' lives. If the piece wasn't clear enough, the mother (Diana LaMar) divides her face in half from top to bottom with her lipstick to show us how divided she is between her love for her children and her desire to drive her car, with kids in tow, into a brick wall. Birth Marks by Leslie Caputo all but drives its audience into a brick wall of tedious repetition. The story of a 17-year-old girl who has just given birth to a baby, the play only offers pleasure in the performances of Martin Shakar as the girl's emotionally torn Irish father, Nicole Gomez as her loyal Hispanic sister-in-law, and Ramon de Ocampo as her goofy brother-in-law. The new mother, played by Jenna Lamia, overacts to the same degree that she puts on a ridiculously thick New York accent.

Jeff Reich's Proof (not to be confused with the play of the same name at Manhattan Theatre Club) starts off extremely well in what appears to be a monologue. An adjunct professor of neuroscience, he (Brad Bellamy) stands behind a podium lecturing a class (us). It turns out, however, that he just lost his job--and his bitter, biting remarks are also scorchingly funny. If Reich had brought the piece to an end with the lecture, it would have worked within its limited scope. Instead, he reaches (or, rather, overreaches) when he contrives a confrontation between the out-of-work professor and his mentor. Wonderful withering sarcasm gives way to clodding philosophy. Proof goes poof. The takeaway, however, is Bellamy's deeply rooted comic performance.

The night is finally and fully made worthwhile only when David Greenspan bestrides the EST stage alone in Will Scheffer's dynamic and thrilling Alien Boy. Greenspan is an actor who plays "big" and this one-act is that rare vehicle emotionally expansive enough to contain him. Throughout most of the play he portrays a precocious 13-year-old boy who is just beginning to confront his homosexuality. A diva despite himself, he recounts the pivotal series of events that occurred that fateful year between himself and his mother. Author Scheffer writes as if he's the dark side of Paul Rudnick. The comedy comes at you in wave after wave, but the jokes are anchored in pain, making the laughter strike closer to home. The play's finale is as startling as a flash fire, and it will burn itself into your memory. Alien Boy is a stunning combination of writing, acting, and directing (by Mark Roberts). This is one of those times when just one play, alone, makes the entire evening worth the trip. And Series C, happily, has the extra bonus of Leight's play, along with a handful of performances that are also worth catching.

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