Ensemble Studio Theatre 34th Marathon of One Act Plays, Series B

These six new short plays add up to a very satisfying evening of comedy and drama.

A scene from <i>The Favor</i>.
A scene from The Favor.
(courtesy of Ensemble Studio Theatre)

Diners who frequently sample tasting menus know that the appetizers are usually the highlight of that kind of meal. But the chefs who have put together Ensemble Studio Theatre‘s 34th Marathon of One Act Plays, Series B, have reversed the formula. Here, it’s the two post-intermission works — the main course and dessert of this well-orchestrated six-course feast — that provide the most pleasing tastes.

As he proved with his recent Broadway hit, The Other Place, Sharr White confirms he’s one of the theater’s rising writing stars with A Sunrise in Times Square. At first, it appears that the quirky, sachet-loving Madeline (Julie Fitzpatrick) has asked former firefighter Marky (the sublime Joseph Lyle Taylor) to stop by her apartment simply to make sure everything is in order in case of a blaze. Over the course of the frequently funny, bittersweet 25 minutes, we discover not only what has prompted Madeline’s seemingly strange fears, but why she has created this awkward (if surprisingly successful) attempt to connect romantically with Marky. The revelation, handled with extraordinary grace by Fitzpatrick, is heartbreaking and authentic.

Seduction of a similar kind goes almost as well for Eddie (Andy Nogasky), the less-than-physically-attractive title character of Robert Askins’ clever Love Song of an Albanian Sous Chef. Given one last night to convince fiery female bartender Billy (a hilarious Danielle Slavick) of his charms, Eddie pulls out all the stops by preparing her a memorable meal — including food that actually talks! The tough-talking Billy is all ready to succumb after sampling his magical corn chowder, aphrodisiacal oysters and more, until blabby busboy Nico (Brian Luna) spills the proverbial beans about the most secret ingredient in Eddie’s repertoire.

The four shorter pieces that take up the first hour of the Marathon all have their strengths, as well, although none leave the same lasting impression. In Cori Thomas’ Waking Up, a privileged American woman and a poor African woman — movingly embodied by Amy Staats and Lynnette R. Freeman — sit side by side and share their recent trials with breast cancer. While only the hardest-bitten soul might not shed a tear or two, the playlet feels a bit too much like a writing exercise (or maybe a well-crafted public service announcement).

With a patented hangdog expression and an expert sense of comic timing, Grant Shaud proves to be perfectly cast in Leslie Ayvazian’s The Favor. Here he is the mild-mannered Ralph, unexpectedly asked by his wife (Janet Zarish) to bestow one last kiss on his dying mother-in-law. The work provides a few laughs but ultimately feels like the first scene in a longer, yet-to-be-produced play.

Meanwhile, Ryan Dowler’s quasi-absurdist Something Like Loneliness, in which Dan (Chris Wight) asks downstairs neighbor Mia (Jane Pfitsch) to borrow something much different than a cup of sugar, will connect with anyone still seeking true love. And Bekah Brunstetter’s curtain-raiser Daddy Took My Debt Away will resonate strongest with those who identify with its twentysomething characters struggling with the notion of financial independence and responsibility.

Special kudos go to scenic designer Nick Francone and the EST staff for ensuring that transitions between the plays go smoothly and quickly, giving audiences just enough time to savor each work yet never allowing us to get too hungry for the next bite.

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