Summer in the City
In the world premiere of Leslie Ayvazian's new miniature play, Rosemary and Elizabeth, there is a moment as tender as it is brief, when two widows hold hands and sigh.
Lovingly directed by Margaret Ledford and acted with exquisite delicacy by Elizabeth Dimon and Kim Ostrenko, Rosemary is a triumph at the heart of City Theatre's Summer Shorts Festival, taking place through July 2 at the University of Miami's Jerry Herman Ring Theatre. The ladies cross paths at a concert in New York City's Central Park, having not seen each other for a long time. And their unexpected meeting engenders sweet memories of a long-ago kiss in their faraway youth. The old friends sit like Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends, awash in melancholy serenity. In the present, on this breezy summer night, another kiss is in store, as is a lifetime's worth of emotion. It is Ayvazian's gift to merely suggest and never show us the depth of those feelings, the sense of lost love and cherished memories. That the whole play lasts but a few minutes is Proustian magic; the kiss is a moment during which time stands still. This is great theater.
Summer Shorts comprises sixteen plays, features nine actors, is staged by six directors with channel-changing speed, and offers something for everyone. It is a terrific entertainment formula, artistically fortified by City Theatre's partnership with Actors Theatre of Louisville. And for all of the festival's success, it has only just begun: In 2007 Summer Shorts will move to the Studio Theater in the new Miami Performing Arts Center. This year's edition is divided into two programs, and not everything is as intimate as Ayvazian's little jewel. If the quiet Rosemary and Elizabeth is the emotional climax of Program B, the Southeast premiere of Brian PJ Cronin's exuberant I Am Drinking the Goddamn Sun is not only the finale of Program A but also the rambunctious apotheosis of the festival itself a comic feast boasting the entire City Theatre ensemble.
Strong yet improbably mellow, and with a sweet aftertaste, Cronin's comedy makes enophilia interesting, even to those who prefer wine from a box. In a comic tour de force, Stephen Trovillion plays "Eric Asimov, chief wine writer for the New York Times. " Gregg Weiner plays his friend Jason, who has just inherited a humongous bottle of rare Château-Something-or-Other that definitely calls for a party. The wine cannot travel, so they must. Eric suffers no fools when it comes to wine. "The stewardess offered me a glass of Turning Leaf," he recounts of his trip to Seattle for the banquet he is about to prepare. "I told her to go to Hell."
Pretentious wine lovers are easy targets, and Cronin's play squarely hits that mark, but there is more to I Am Drinking the Goddamn Sun than easy laughs. The wine in question "was too young," the play tells us, "but we weren't." Carpe diem. Somewhere still on a vine lies tomorrow's wine. Dramatically, Cronin's play has it both ways. It is poetic and clever, hip and literate, just plain tasty.
Not all the plays presented at Summer Shorts are as good as Ayvazian's or Cronin's, but very few are awful. The low point is Andrea Ciannavei's The Deep End, which is full of vulgar, shallow, and eye-glazingly dull dialogue between an unpleasant man and his unpleasant new girlfriend. Adam Bock's Three Guys and a Brenda a set piece for three drag kings that dumbs down the straight-dumb-guy stereotype is disappointing. Editing out these two plays would make each program better and faster. Still, the rest is not bad.
Rolin Jones's dark Sovereignty is an outing and updating of John Updike's suburbia that suffers only from its insistence on explaining the obvious. There is a stronger, more subtle play lurking in this script, one that is suggested by Paul Tei's direction and Ostrenko, Dimon, and Trovillion's fearless acting. Catherine Castellani's Work, a satire of hard-driven urban go-getters, is not especially original, but it is very funny; director Matthew Glass has a real ear for comedy. Tiny Baby by Eric Pfeffinger comes off as an homage to Edward Albee and a welcome jolt from the naturalism of so much American drama. Molly Smith Metzler's Decoding Fruit has a "Lifetime Television for Women" feel, and it plays like a basic-cable rerun from seasons past. Terri Wagener's Labor Day, 1968 is sweet but innocuous, a promising workshop script but hardly festival fare. Stephen Dietz's September Call-Up is a maudlin piece about father-son bonding and the horrors of war set against a small-town baseball game. And cheap sentiment is difficult to pull off.
The low points are brief, and Summer Shorts offers many pleasures, chiefly the shapeshifting City Theatre actors sinking their teeth into a lot of dramatic hors d'oeuvres. Joshua Peskay and Joshua James's New Texas, or Now That War Is Finally Over, Party On! featuring Dick, Dubya, and their slimy friends partying on an Iraqi beach is little more than a good Mad TV skit. But the cast has a ball, and Joe Kimble's clueless President Bush alone is worth the price of a ticket. Kimble is also hilarious and even touching in Free, Craig Pospisil's sweet and refreshingly Sixties paean to nudity. Antonio Amadeo overacts in Sarah Hammond's minor Hum of the Arctic, but he is immensely enjoyable as a Teletubby in Aoise Stratford's silly The Closet. He is also touching opposite Dimon in Carmen M. Herlihy's tear-jerking Coffee Break. Not everything is a masterpiece, but everything in Summer Shorts is brief.
And sometimes, as when Ostrenko and Dimon portray Ayvazian's old friends, the brevity is miraculous.
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