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Summer Shorts 3 Series A

Neil LaBute's "A Second of Pleasure" is the clear stand-out in this program of short plays.

Victor Slezak and Margaret Colin
in "A Second of Pleasure"
(© Carol Rosegg)
Neil LaBute has explored the often charged power dynamics between men and women in several of his works, including his recent Tony Award-nominated play, reasons to be pretty. His excellent new piece, "A Second of Pleasure," which continues this theme, is the clear stand-out in Summer Shorts 3 Series A, a festival of new American short plays now on view at 59E59 Theaters.

Unlike some of LaBute's previous works, there's not a whole lot of yelling involved. Rather, the central couple in "Pleasure" primarily converse in reasonable tones, and there's a lot of talk about honesty and processing of emotions and intentions. As we learn more about Kurt (Victor Slezak) and Jess (Margaret Colin), this almost overly careful way of communicating becomes at once more understandable and also somewhat ironic. The premise of the piece involves Jess changing her mind about a weekend getaway just minutes prior to the departure of the train the couple intended to take. The two actors, under the surehanded direction of stage and screen star Andrew McCarthy, deliver nuanced performances that track the twists and turns of the characters' emotional journey all the way through to the play's quietly devastating conclusion.

The remaining three works on the bill are nowhere near as effective. Nancy Giles' solo piece, "Things My Afro Taught Me," is an identity-based autobiographical story about one African-American woman's experience with trying to tame her unruly hair. Giles is an engaging performer and shares a few funny anecdotes, but the piece follows a too predictable arc.

John Augustine's "Death by Chocolate" is a puzzling mess of a play that just goes on and on without saying anything of merit. Recent widow Sheila (Sherry Anderson) is celebrating her birthday and possibly having a nervous breakdown. There are a couple of amusing bits, such as Sheila's phone conversation with someone at the mental institution where her twin sister is housed, but most of the gags are trite and not all that funny. The actors, who also include Mary Joy and Aaron Paternoster, deliver labored performances and Robert Saxner's direction doesn't bring any lift to the admittedly limp material.

The evening ends on a strained note with Skip Kennon and Bill Connington's mini-musical, "The Eternal Anniversary," in which Tom (Robert W. DuSold), a chef, prepares an elaborate meal for his wife Sarah (Leenya Rideout) on the occasion of their 20th anniversary. Heavy-handed hints are dropped at the beginning of the piece -- such as Sarah's initial entrance dressed all in white -- that all is not as it may seem. The plot is overly melodramatic, while the music is pleasant but unmemorable. On the bright side, DuSold has a magnificent voice, and it would be a pleasure to seem him in something far more worthy of his talents.