Ensemble Studio Theatre’s annual Marathon of One-Act Plays is in full swing this month in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. A prestigious festival in its 36th year, Series B features a panoply of five plays of merit.
The evening opens with the vibrantly-acted Down Cleghorn by Julia Specht, featuring a scatological, narcissistic mother and her two long-suffering daughters, all sporting chowder-thick Boston accents. This percolating play is set in a homey kitchen replete with homework-strewn fridge, floral tablecloth-clad table, stainless sink and white oven. While one daughter prepares a tuna casserole, the other spars with her not-so-quietly disapproving mom. Emily Jackson is a highlight as the good girl daughter who contains her frustration as Patricia Randell’s mom tirelessly tries to trip her up. Ralph Peña directs this intricate kitchen-set domestic diorama with an unwavering precision.
Next up is Falling Away by Christopher Shinn, the highlight of a solid evening. The play unfurls as a seemingly dry philosophical discussion between a young couple. The formalities soon dispense as Charles Socarides reveals his ardor for Sara Bues. Both actors are captivating and aligned like gears, locked in a romantic conflict reminiscent of a Strindberg play as directed by Ingmar Bergman. Falling Away is a moving, authentic portrayal of a plausible, wrenching dilemma. Director Mark Armstrong reveals an innate feel for the material, having worked with Shinn before. A bench and garbage can simply and effectively root the play in its city park setting. This tantalizing one-act begs to be expanded.
The third selection prior to intermission is the amusing Linus and Murray, about a friendship between a cat and dog. In lieu of much scenic design, scraps of paper to connote snow and leaves are effectively employed. Debargo Sanyal and Curran Connor are compelling actors who astutely convey the physicality and behavioral traits of animals. The play works best when it sticks to the humorous relationship at the heart of the story. While Sanyal’s cat is the showier performance, a slightly shorter leash would likely make the play’s serious turn more organic. Director RJ Tolan elicits naturalistic, convincing portrayals of animals by humans.
The next play is the intriguing Disney and Fujikawa, about an imagined meeting between Walt Disney and Gyo Fujikawa, a noted author and illustrator. The play is enlightening about the Internment of Japanese and Japanese-Americans during World War II. The scenic and costume designs are memorably evocative. The acting, by Jeff Biehl and Tiffany Villarin is solid, efficiently navigating this nuanced play. Disney and Fujikawa is the evening’s most visually developed production. Despite a slight sense of an uncertain ending, director Linsay Firman runs a tight ship of a production.
The final play of the evening is a somber, downbeat two-hander called On The Outs. A story of a newly minted ex-con gone to live with his ex-wife, this play features sturdy acting from the muscular Joe Holt, sporting a wife-beater, and Lynette R. Freeman, in a pastel bathrobe. The kitchen set from Down Cleghorn is reprised, with the fridge playing a supporting role. The lighting is remarkably dim and effective. Their relationship has a palpable authenticity, as does the writing by Christina Gorman. Moonlighting dramatist David Auburn directs with a sure hand for this simmering chamber drama. Like Falling Away, this play seems well-suited for expansion.
In sum, a satisfying evening of new works which are united in their insightful depiction of a full range of experiences, both human and otherwise.
Ensemble Studio Theatre Marathon of One-Act Plays is at 599 West 52nd St in New York City.
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