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Ross Gibby and Maria Tucci in "Psyche
In Love," one of The Downtown Plays
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The producers of The Downtown Plays, which are at the heart of the first annual Tribeca Theater Festival, take the "play" designation loosely. Requiring nine contributors to craft pieces with a running time of not more than15 minutes each and also to indicate a 14th Street or below Manhattan setting, the powers behind this new attention-getting theater endeavor have harvested a crop of works that neatly illustrate the differences between a play and a skit.

Only three of the dramatists -- Jon Robin Baitz, David Henry Hwang, and Frank Pugliese -- have actually come up with full-bodied plays. The others have concocted sketches, which tend more toward one overriding observation or joke and often lead to a punchline or O. Henry-like ending or both; this handful includes Douglas Carter Beane (whose longer plays also lean in the direction of sketches), Kenneth Lonergan, Warren Leight, and Wendy Wasserstein, for whom the introduction to an actual downtown may have been a pleasant surprise. Neil LaBute and Paul Rudnick have delivered monologues.

To start with the best: Baitz's "My Beautiful Goddamn Country" is more than worth the reasonable admission price. Back on sure footing after last season's wobbly Chinese Friends, Baitz brings together two sisters (played by Maria Tucci and Julie White) who are reeling from 9/11, the current presidential election, and an avalanche of personal problems. One has just come back to the city; the other is leaving for permanent residence in Paris. The returning sibling has counted on her sister's companionship and tries to talk her into staying. Baitz has birthed an honest-to-goodness play because the women, in trying to understand one another over dinner at an old haunt, reify their relationship. Because Baitz is an expert epigrammist, his 15 minutes are spiced with hilariously trenchant lines; the audience favorite, for obvious reasons, is "We are not Americans. We are New Yorkers. It's not the same thing." Equally potent jibes regularly arrive at the speed of light. Add "My Beautiful Goddamn Country" to the list of authoritative, post-Twin Towers opuses that includes John Guare's Woman at a Threshold, Beckoning.

Hwang's "Trying to Find Chinatown" is, like most of his plays, about identity and deracination. A Chinese street violinist (Joel de la Fuente) is approached by a blond, blue-eyed Midwesterner (Ross Gibby) looking for Chinatown. The violinist, who defines himself by his music, thinks he's being patronized; but the newcomer introduces himself as Benjamin Wong, adopted by Chinese parents. He defines himself by his upbringing. Hwang cagily introduces a philosophical quandary without presuming to reach conclusions. In Pugliese's "Late Night, Early Morning," two blue collar co-workers (Chris Messina, Marilyn Torres) exchange confidences while waiting for her late-night subway. They're battered by circumstances (he's been in prison for drug dealing) but are strong enough to realize that they can trust each other enough to connect. The exercise teases sentimentality but remains this side of genuine sentiment.

Of the other offerings, the hands-down hit is Rudnick's "Pride and Joy," during which Helene Nadler (Jackie Hoffman), in trendy shawl and lacquered coiffeur, explains as the newly appointed leader of a P-Flag-like support group that she's the best mother ever, dammit, because she loves her lesbian daughter, transsexual older son, and leather queen youngest. (Joel de la Fuente appears briefly as the hooded offspring.) Rudnick, who doesn't recognize the noun "limits," pushes his premise to side-splitting, boundary-breaking realms. Beane must know too many emerging actors and shark agents; he elicits a few chuckles with "He Meaning Him," which shows one actor (Josh Hamilton) and one agent (Julie White again) mouthing and gesturing clichés to an unseen playwright with a hot property.

Jackie Hoffman in "Pride and Joy,"
one of The Downtown Plays
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Leight's ironically tagged "Happy for You," featuring five more show-biz knowledgeables (de la Fuente, Gibby, Hoffman, Messina, Torres), is a fleshing out of Francois de la Rochefoucauld's remark that "it's not enough for me to succeed, my friends must fail." The action occurs as this quintet waits for a supposed pal of theirs to win or lose (please, God!) a screenwriting Oscar. Leight has the beginnings of something but not the right ending; the one he chose isn't sufficient.

LaBute pushes forward another of his intriguing sickos in the "Union Square" monologue. This visitor from Utah is looking for the wife who walked out on him and the kids. He eventually tells an unseen bum that he either has a gun in the paper bag he's carrying or he doesn't. In the cute but inconsequential "True to You," Lonergan intros Mr. Carmody (Hamilton), evidently an incorrigible embezzler, and loyal secretary Sophie (J. Smith-Cameron), who'll do anything to help the boss she idolizes out of a jam. Which brings us to the evening's only total misfire: It's the closer, Wasserstein's frantic "Psyche in Love," wherein a 14th Street rabbi tells the story of Cupid (Gibby) and Psyche (White) to make some point for a bas mitzvah-ed girl about -- well, nothing, really.

Directed with great verve by John Rando and performing in front of Alexander Dodge's blow-up of a downtown subway map, the acting troupe is first-rate; White, Hamilton, de la Fuente, Hoffman, and Tucci dart in and out with special aplomb, as do Messina and Torres. But the best bet and the best bait is Baitz.

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