Summer Shorts at the Arsht: A Mixed Bag of Mind-Controlling Cats and Grieving Fathers

Rather than construct a standard-issue theater review for an evening of mirth and brevity that is always anything but standard-issue, I decided to trek through City Theatre's 19th edition of Summer Shorts play by play, in the order in which they are presented. Liberated from the need to excavate overlapping themes and through-lines from this jumbled theatrical stocking, I've scored each piece on its individual merits and demerits, assigning a point value to each production out of a maximum possible ten. The conclusions take into account both the source material and the production quality, beginning with:

1. "Old Flame," by Mira Gibson

Ex-lovers, played by Niki Fridh and David Perez-Ribada, meet in a supermarket aisle an indeterminate time after their split. Both have brought along their new partners (Mary Sansone and Tom Wahl) but remain fundamentally unsatisfied. Director Margaret M. Ledford strikes the proper delicate balance between humor and poignancy; I wanted more time with these characters. Score: 8/10

2. "Halftime," by Richard Dresse.

In this monologue, a middle-school basketball coach (Mcley Lafrance) addresses his team at halftime, but his pep talk quickly gives way to personal baggage involving the coach's career and love life. To the extent that this piece succeeds at all, Lafrance's exuberance is entirely to thank. But his skilled oration can't compensate for a formula that gets old about a minute into the play and trudges inexorably onward. Score: 5/10.

3. "It's the Jews," by John Minigan

Perez-Ribada is a playwright whose labor of love, a Holocaust drama about the bond between a concentration camp guard and inmate, is rejected by a regional theater director (Elizabeth Dimon) on the grounds that it's too Jewish. A dry, deadpan satire about commercial compromise, the play's follow-through doesn't quite match its potential, though the cast clearly enjoys every second of it. Score: 6/10.

4. "The Click," by Leslie Ayvazian

There's always at least one inexplicably chosen head-scratcher each Summer Shorts, and this one fits the bill. Wahl and Irene Adjan are a vacationing couple; it's the latter's birthday, but the former won't stop throwing rocks across a pond in an attempts to will away a shoulder injury. Neither of these fine actors seems particularly invested in material that goes nowhere. Score: 2/10.

5. "Shock and Awww...," by Dan Castellanata and Deb Lacusta

Perez-Ribada brings an adorable kitten to the apartment he shares with Lafrance, but the feline--a stuffed, jet-black puppet--proceeds to hypnotize them and take over the world. Written by two "Simpsons" scribes, the hidden feline agenda of "Shock and Awww..." strikes important satirical points about our distracted Internet populace, but Paul Tei's manic direction borders on the juvenile, letting silliness overtake its raison d'etre. Score: 4/10.

6. "The Scottish Play," by Theo Reyna

A child-custody debate between sparring parents becomes a metaphor for two United Kingdom nations divided over oil-drilling rights--or is it the other way around?--in this witty geopolitical comedy that enjoyed its world premiere in Mad Cat Theatre Company's Mixtape 2 earlier this year. More grounded than Mad Cat's delirious version, it still works, and it allows for some clever costumes and accents. Score: 7/10.

7. "My Husband," by Paul Rudnick

One of the prized humorist's "Gay Marriage Plays," "My Husband" is less about its single gay man (Perez-Ribada) than it is about his nudnik Jewish mother (Adjan), who takes advantage of recent marriage-equality legislation to finally "marry off" her boy, even if the wedding bells are entirely fictitious. Kind of a sweet piece that is long-winded at times but grows on you. Score: 7/10.

8. "Tornado," by Arlitia Jones

A father's attempt to buy sporting goods for his son builds toward an emotional cyclone in this revelatory drama. A tour de force from Wahl and sensitive support from Lafrance make this two-hander the highlight of Summer Shorts 2014, a firm rebuke to the theory that heavy dramas don't work in a largely comedic milieu. Simply extraordinary on every level, from script to direction (by Ledford) to set design, which is the collection's most lavish. Score: 10/10.

9. "Make John Patrick Shanley Go Home," by Holli Harms

An aspiring playwright (Niki Fridh) spots the titular Doubt and Moonstruck writer at a restaurant and recalls a humiliating encounter with Shanley at a writer's conference. Instead of shrinking away and leaving the restaurant, she approaches the award-winning writer, thanks to the help of her uncouth, Jerseyfied older sisters (Dimon and Adjan). What plays out as Harms' revenge fantasy is one of the funniest pieces in this collection, bolstered by Dimon's most inspired work in the show. No surprise here: Ledford directed it, and she seems to have the magic touch no matter the mood of the play. Score: 9/10.

10. "Joshua Consumed an Unfortunate Pear," by Steve Yockey

A Greek chorus in sequined robes narrates the story of Wahl's Joshua, who discovers a batch of pears whose consumption yields immortality, much to the chagrin of his nagging wife (Fridh). An opening-night disturbance involving a patron who briefly lost consciousness led to this play being called before it ended--a drastic overreaction. It's the only full-cast ensemble piece in the show, and it clearly has potential. Score: n/a.

If I can allow just one sweeping judgment about this year's collection of plays, it's that it lacks technical cohesion. If you saw last year's Summer Shorts, you'll remember its ingenious set design, an art gallery dotted with paintings and sculptures that echoed the plays. This year's set, which vaguely recalls a fashion runway and a professional wrestling entranceway, is disappointingly incoherent by comparison. Dancers of wildly fluctuating ability perform interstitial routines linking the plays, and aside from a lovely pas de deux, this doesn't work either. Going forward into the big two-oh next year, its creative team would best look back to the smooth visual elegance of 2013.

Summer Shorts runs through July 6 at Arsht Center, 1300 Biscyane Blvd., Miami. Tickets cost $45. Call 305-949-6722 or visit arshtcenter.org.

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