59E59 Theaters kicks off its annual Summer Shorts festival with three of the six pieces to be offered among its light seasonal fare. Series A features short plays by acclaimed writers Melissa Ross (Thinner Than Water, Of Good Stock), Emmy winner Alan Zweibel (Saturday Night Live, Curb Your Enthusiasm), and Oscar winner Graham Moore (The Imitation Game) — and in keeping with the variety of their credits, this trio of writers could not have contributed three more different works.
Ross's play Jack puts a sweet, hyperrealistic magnifying glass to a moment of closure between a divorced couple, George and Maggie, who are finally cutting the last chord that ties them together. That chord happens to be their dog, whom they have shared custody of since the split, and now, together, have to lay to rest. Mimi O'Donnell directs her excellent actors Quincy Dunn-Baker (George) and Claire Karpen (Maggie) through the rhythms of that conversation — the one where things are definitely being said, but not in the words coming out of anyone's mouth. Ross understands that dance well and maneuvers her characters through it with humor and sincerity.
The tone sharply shifts as we move into Zweibel's sketchlike comedy Playing God. Here we meet the pompous obstetrician Doctor Fisher (Dana Watkins putting on his best air of white privilege), who has the audacity to schedule his patients' deliveries around his vacation schedule. This makes God (a crotchety, white-robed Bill Buell) none too happy. There's only room for one God in this universe, and he's going to show Doctor Fisher who really runs the world (as expected, it's not girls). Besides, as his expressionless assistant (a deadpan Welker White) brings to God's attention, he's a few thousand years overdue for a fresh miracle. Maybe turning an atheist liberal into a believer could be the one to dazzle the universe. Maria Mileaf directs the piece very tongue-in-cheek — as one would have to when you're staging a magical squash match between God and a hot doctor. Some of the silliness falls flat, but ultimately the play does raise some interesting questions about belief — or at the very least makes us reconsider Pascal's Wager.
Moore's play Acolyte (his playwriting debut) is the wildest and most unexpected ride of them all. It imagines an evening between Ayn Rand (Orlagh Cassidy); her husband, Frank O'Connor (Ted Koch); the man Rand famously had an affair with, Nathaniel Branden (Sam Lilja); and his wife, Barbara (Brontë England-Nelson), a woman who in real life admired Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, and, along with Frank, permitted Rand's affair with her husband. On paper, it's a twisted scenario, so Moore (along with his Oscar-winning director Alexander Dinelaris) theatrically unspools it onstage by holding the pieces of this emotional puzzle up to Rand's own philosophies. "Absurdity" is the word that comes to mind to describe what comes of this fantasy tea party, but it’s absurdity of the most revealing and fascinating sort.
Objectivism, which Rand famously and controversially promoted in her novels, claims that one's moral purpose in life is to promote one's own self-interest. Borrowing a friend and mentee's husband is certainly in line with that modus operandi, which Rand argues in intellectual mazes (Cassidy is perfectly intimidating in the role). But Barbara (England-Nelson performing the sharpest character arc of the play) comes back at Rand with the scathing reproof that is the fantasy of every Democrat who was forced to read Atlas Shrugged. At the end of it all, you feel as if you've spent time in a nightmare, filled with people willing to not only tolerate shocking amounts of selfishness and disloyalty, but willing to defend these beliefs under the guise of moral righteousness. It concludes rather abruptly with no clear landing pad, but fortunately, there's plenty of the same awaiting us in the real world .