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.

The mysteries of motherhood lie at the core of the festival's most affecting presentation, Richard Hellesen's touching Dos Corazones, which is deftly directed by Kent Lantaff. In performances usually achieved only after a two-hour buildup, Gwynn and Moreland spellbind as maternity-ward roommates who overcome a language barrier through the common fears and hopes they feel for their babies. Although my Spanish amounts to nada, Moreland's impassioned performance as the Hispanic mother who believes new life is a miracle enabled me to follow every word, just as Gwynn's pained movements and intense portrayal of the Anglo's postnatal depression led me (once again) to question the joys of childbirth. Dos Corazones provides each actress with the chance to play a three-dimensional character, and both seize the opportunity. So do Norman and O'Neill-Butler with their revealing performances in My Secretary, Henry in his portrayal of the confused swimmer in Four One-Hundredths, and Wahl in his complex depiction of the tortured brother in Passing Through.

Despite serious competition from her gifted castmates, Gwynn emerges as the festival's star, confirming the old adage that there are no small roles, only small actors. Making the most with whatever is handed her, the recent University of Miami graduate breathes life into each role through an electrifying combination of stage presence and piercing dramatic choices.

Cast in one-premise plays with only a few moments to establish character, the actors are often called upon to quickly telegraph stereotypes. No one does this better than Bill Hindman; within seconds he's a prissy grocery manager, thieving bum, henpecked farmer, drunken gambler, rule-bound janitor, and unappetizing cook. But even his skills can't save Summer Shorts's two flops: David Kranes's Making Action, a muddled character study examining a gambler and his card dealer, and Charles Aye's predictable Blackie, a real dog about a man's love for his pet.

The various designers manage to create an inventive, appropriate environment for each play, but none more so than scenic designer Michael Thomas Essad, whose set works like a colorful pop-up book, with hidden parts that fold down and slide out to join projected slides and rolling set pieces. For instance, his pop-up cartoonish clock -- it really works -- whimsically underscores the frenetic pace of Chris Widney's library scavenger hunt in the smart One of the Great Ones.

Although Essad's set is more unified than is either program, a cohesive dramatic flow is a lot to ask, given the various styles of the many playwrights, directors, and cast members. Likewise, it's hard to choose the merits of one program over the other: Program B contains the best sketch and the majority of the better dramas, while program A counters with lots of laughs and the not-to-be-missed Dos Corazones.

Why choose? Put on your cut-offs and plan to enjoy the picnic lunch available to those seeing both programs in a single afternoon or evening. Summer Shorts '97 will be gone in a few weeks. It's not often you see shorts with such strong legs.

Summer Shorts '97
With David Bugher, Nell Gwynn, Steven Henry, Bill Hindman, Margot Moreland, Stephanie Norman, Marjorie O'Neill-Butler, Harriet Oser, Leila Piedrafita, and Tom Wahl. Through July 13. For more information call 284-3355 or see "Calendar Listings.


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