A Passel of Playlets

Producing only once a year, City Theatre sets the theatrical dog days of summer howling with Summer Shorts '97, a festival of fifteen short plays ranging in length from two to fifteen minutes. Now at the University of Miami's Jerry Herman Ring Theatre, the company brings more local talent to the stage over a few weeks than most others do in an entire season; thirteen of the area's top directors and ten gloriously talented South Florida actors collaborate on the works of fourteen playwrights based here and around the nation. Presented without intermissions in two different 90-minute programs (A and B), the festival offers the entertaining theatrical equivalent of guilt-free beach reading.

City Theatre producer Susan Westfall (a playwright herself, and represented in program B) explains that festival entries aren't scavenged scenes from unsuccessful plays or the embryos of others: "The genesis behind [writing a short play] is that it is increasingly becoming the only form that will be accepted unsolicited by festivals." Emerging practitioners of the form have joined Tony Kushner, August Wilson, Christopher Durang, David Mamet, John Guare, and others in seeing their short works produced in high-profile regional festivals (Actors Theater of Louisville's 10-Minute Play Festival, Los Angeles City Playhouse's Festival of Short Works) and by established off-Broadway companies (Ensemble Studio Theatre, Circle Rep Lab, New Dramatists, Primary Stages, and Actors & Writers).

If the production of short plays is not unusual, certainly the quality of those in Summer Shorts '97 is. The pieces break down into three categories: television variety-show skits in which a single funny idea is played out, minidramas that relate a complete tale, and a few works that rewardingly expand the theatrical experience beyond the short form's limitations.

Providing a textbook example of a sketch that stops while the joke's still funny, Larry Parr's Politically Correct Police, as enhanced by director Joy Abbott's tight staging, tops all the fest's other comic offerings. Parr has a dignified diva (Margot Moreland) launch into "Old Man River" only to endure the interruptions of a man (Steven Henry) determined to rewrite Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics into modern tolerancespeak as "Senior Citizen River." In another hysterical highlight, Hillary Rollins's Mom's Family-Style Restaurant details how a woman's (Stephanie Norman) birthday treat is ruined by a diner's just-like-home atmosphere, one that causes her husband (Tom Wahl) and friends (David Bugher and Leila Piedrafita) to revert to childish games. The diner's dysfunctional staff includes an alcoholic waiter (Henry), a June Cleaver-type hostess (Harriet Oser), and a master chef (Bill Hindman) who orgasmically spanks the birthday girl.

Other comic sketches open both programs, but they're less successful. Gib Johnson's Young Brits drops in on young Will and Harry Windsor (Wahl and Bugher) as they work through the postdivorce stress of Britain's royal family; it's a cute idea that goes on a little too long. On the other hand, Staci Swedeen's slight Details is the right length but less clever; it documents the worst nightmare of an obsessive-compulsive wife (Norman) whose vacation is endangered by an unfinished to-do list. Presented in several scenes as a complete romantic-comedy minidrama, Seth Kramer's Perfect Meeting also serves up plenty of laughs. Under Ru Flynn's charming direction, a smitten New Yorker (Bugher) discovers happiness is only a telephone directory -- and a few thousand calls -- away after he falls for a stranger (Piedrafita) with an unknown last name.

In a more serious vein, Westfall's intriguing Passing Through, ably directed by Steve Wise, depicts a man's (Wahl) tormented attempts to discover if a visitor (Nell Gwynn) to the neighborhood bar is his long-lost sister. Less effective is Andrew C. Ordover's The Five-Dollar Bill, which, presented in an uneven seriocomic tone by director Joe Adler, relates the tale of three panhandlers' lethal fight over a large handout. Free of larger dramatic ambitions, Ed Ryan's tidy and amusing The Break Room finds two grocery store clerks taking five while gossiping about lusty storeroom romps in the lettuce.

Amazingly, the pleasant diversions of these eight short works are surpassed by several of the other entries, which manage to create lasting impressions despite their fleeting format. For example, Gary Sales's taut direction of Richard Hellesen's Four One-Hundreths forces us to evaluate personal worth against pop culture's celebrity scoreboard when a tough sports agent (Gwynn) furiously calls off an advertising photo session when she discovers her newly acquired Olympic swimmer client (Henry) won only a bronze medal. And Gail Garrisan's compassionate handling of Leigh Forston's My Secretary makes us marvel at the irrational strength of the human spirit: A woman (Norman) declines a psychiatrist's (Marjorie O'Neill-Butler) help in getting through her son's death and her husband's terminal cancer, only to turn around and solicit her assistance in killing the lucky-in-life secretary she feels is stealing her share of happiness.

Tackling the work of the festival's best-known playwright, Jose Rivera, director Barry Steinman manages to convey magic realism in less than fifteen minutes. In The Winged Man, Steinman blends Eric Smith's haunting sound design, designer Thomas M. Salzman's unearthly lighting, and Jeffery B. Phipps marvelous bird-man costume into the story of a girl (Piedrafita) who saves a race of flying men from extinction by mating with its dying last member.

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