For a gay elf at Christmastime, falling in love with your boss is a fruitless occupational hazard. Santa is straight, and though the beard might be sexy, he's off the market.
In Matt Hoverman's short play The Student, the best piece at City Theatre's inconsistent Summer Shorts festival at the Adrienne Arsht Center, Todd Allen Durkin plays a prim, proper, and pent-up pupil who has penned a story about this exact scenario. In this masterful comedy of homoerotic repression and twisted yuletide metaphor, Durkin's student appears in his teacher's office for a critique of his creative-writing assignment. Ken Clement plays the teacher, a struggling novelist who has just received another rejection letter and is not having the best of days. When Durkin expresses starry admiration for his teacher's profound advice, Clement responds, "I'm not a mentor. I'm a de-mentor."
It soon becomes clear that the elf and Santa's situation closely resembles a certain student-teacher relationship. Director Antonio Amadeo fills his pacing with lengthy beats to draw out the discomfort between the lines, and Durkin fills them with extraordinary comic timing. Clement is equally effective as the frustrated straight man, in more ways than one; everything these two seasoned veterans exchange (and don't exchange) is cripplingly funny. As we'll see, this Summer Shorts is particularly reliant on outrageous costumes and lofty concepts, but The Student is a reminder that with such gifted acting, directing, and writing, minimalism is more than sufficient.
The Student is the highlight of Summer Shorts' 11 plays, five of them world premieres, culled from some 900 entries. The overall package for this annual short-play bonanza is usually rough, but it contains a few diamonds.
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The most effective piece in Act II is Nina Mansfield's Bite Me, with Margaret Ledford directing Durkin as a callous corporate lawyer and Vera Varlamov as his dazzling trophy wife, who has planned an unusual surprise for her husband upon his return from work one evening. Without spoiling anything, it suffices to say that Clement joins the couple as a nonchalant vampire, who seems to be more concerned with filing his nails than sucking anyone's blood. This trio is compelling and hilarious, with Ledford grounding the action in deadpan wit when it might have been easier to go over the top.