In recent years, the managers of South Florida's famous, 15-year-old short-play festival, Summer Shorts, have teamed up with the yet-more-famous Humana Festival in Louisville to swap scripts, trade ideas, and do mutual promotion. Thanks to that marshalling of efforts, press releases say, more than 1,000 scripts now pass beneath the eyes of Summer Shorts handlers each year, and only the best among them are produced. This year, that means 14 plays: seven for City Theatre's (theoretically) family-safe show, Signature Shorts, and seven for the adults-only, late-night Undershorts. On opening night, the latter featured a set change during which the PA blasted a record of lounge singer Richard Cheese crooning, "My neck! My back! Lick my pussy and my crack!"

This is not the most intelligent moment of this year's Summer Shorts, but it's close. Just about every pro critic in SoFla has, at one time or another, privately expressed doubt that each summer's Shorts are really culled from 1,000-plus entrants, but this is the first time the idea seemed really ludicrous. If this motley assemblage represents the best of American short drama, the idiom is in very, very deep shit.

Take, for example, Michael Elyanow's truly terrible "Banging Ann Coulter," which is somehow more odious than its subject. Coulter (played by Laura Turnbull, who deserves better) appears midway through the play to interrupt a multigendered collection of her former sexual partners, who have gathered to grouse about her lousy performance in the sack. Never mind that Turnbull — in a horned fright wig, pancake makeup, and padded leather everything — looks less like Ann Coulter than a cross between Tim Curry in Legend and Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. What really rankles is that the Coulter of Elyanow's script displays none of the real one's evident wit or intelligence. Note to the playwright: If you're going to lampoon a writer in writing, make sure you're as good as she is.

Laura Turnbull in the odious "Banging Ann Coulter."
George Schiavone
Laura Turnbull in the odious "Banging Ann Coulter."

But I suspect Elyanow hasn't read Coulter's columns, never mind her books. In fact, he seems to know too little about Ann Coulter to finish the play he has written about her. Shortly after Turnbull's arrival onstage, "Banging Ann Coulter" devolves into a useless tangent about — get this — the playwright's fear of not being taken seriously as an artist. Well, duh.

"Banging Ann Coulter" would not benefit from the excision of its final, futile three minutes (its first several minutes are, if anything, worse), but many bits could — especially those from family-friendly Signature Shorts. Only one play in that grim slog knows when to quit. That's Bridget Carpenter's "Euxious," a heartbreaking vignette featuring Laura Turnbull (unhorned and clad in a smart business suit) in the aftermath of a car accident that very likely killed a minivan full of people. Turnbull's unnamed character was on her cell phone when it happened and didn't notice the van run a red light. Alas, "Euxious" isn't about the dangers of driving while phoning. Carpenter's mind is more slippery than that, and her play explores the outer edge of something far more dangerous, elusive, and eternal. Turnbull's caller, as it turns out, was God. She knew it: The divine hum of the line filled her with a serenity she'd never felt before. Turnbull cries, "Why would He call me if He knew this would happen?" But that's how it goes. Certitude about the Almighty is always purchased with blood.

Good as "Euxious" is, it would be only the third or fourth best piece in Signature Shorts if only some wise editor stepped in to correct the playwrights' self-indulgence. "Poor Shem" is a fascinating, perverse exploration of workplace morality (and mortality), starring the kinetic Elena Maria Garcia, the effervescent Erin Joy Schmidt, and the often evanescent Breeza Zeller. Or it would be, if it didn't run out of ideas four minutes before it runs out of stage time. By the end, it has lost both its momentum and its point; "Poor Shem" languishes onstage with an awkwardness that calls to mind the hero of Christopher Durang's "The Actor's Nightmare." As it happens, Durang's own contribution to the show, "Not a Creature Was Stirring," suffers a similar fate. In it, the members of a family gather 'round their pater (Steve Trovillion) on Christmas Eve, waiting for him to read a Christmas poem. The house is overladen with signs of holiday cheer, and the family members' smiles are a bit too wide. (In particular, Zeller looks likely to sprain her face.) There is a reason for this. Trovillion's man-of-the-house is a tyrant — his home a cross between Santa's workshop, Hell, and Bergen-Belsen. The gaiety here is strictly enforced and continually tested. Trovillion, we learn, has unique horrors in mind for his family.

Why not stop there? Why not let horror be horrible? Why burden the thing with a thoroughly conventional happy ending? It doesn't seem like Durang put much thought into those questions. The whole latter half of the thing seems tossed off, almost contemptuously. I have much more sympathy for Dan Dietz, author of "Lobster Boy." The play stars Trovillion as a droll lecturer, telling the audience a sad tale of two brothers, the younger of which suffered an inability to feel pain. Things went poorly for the boys, and the script bores further into the mysteries of suffering and boyhood than you'd think a short play could allow. Nevertheless, it also goes too far — canceling its initial, visceral impact with a windy denouement that spells out much too clearly the relationship of the lecturer to the boys in the story.

This year's Undershorts series is altogether crisper than Signature Shorts' gassy anomalies. Aside from "Banging Ann Coulter," only one is a certifiable dud (Rolin Jones's directionless "Extreme"), and only one piece overstays its welcome (Joshua James's bracing "Fuck You"). Despite their alleged filth, some Undershorts manage moments of real insight, pathos, or both (Susan Cinoman's "Beds," Bekah Brunstetter's "Daddy Took My Debt Away," and Laura Eason's mysterious political meditation "It Was Fun While It Lasted" — probably the best piece of the program, starring the incomparable Chaz Mena alongside Erin Joy Schmidt in the meatiest roles of the night). Even the dumbest of the remainders, such as Joshua James's "The Pap" (the title is self-explanatory), elicit a belly laugh or three. But all credit must go to the actors — including the chameleon-like David Hemphill and Scott Genn, who leave the stage soaked in blood, sweat, and probably several other bodily fluids. City Theatre's actors know how to rock a short play. Doesn't anyone know how to pick one?

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