Summer Shorts 2015 Strikes Gold

Twenty years ago, long before everybody else was doing it, Miami's City Theatre launched a festival of ten-minute plays. Summer Shorts, theatergoers' annual kickoff to the steamy season in South Florida, has withstood a handful of reboots in its two-decade run, experimenting with celebrity actors, adults-only programming, and unprofitable Broward County engagements.

You could argue the festival is still trying to find its identity, but after a few wobbly years, it seems that, finally, it has struck gold. Summer Shorts 2015 achieves an enviable synergy of witty, probing plays, a perfect cast, and well-chosen directors, all of it swimming in two decades of nostalgia.

In Jodi Dellaventura's pictorial set design, images plucked from the Summer Shorts archive of 400-plus plays hang in gilded frames like an artist's career retrospective. A projection screen is positioned in the center of the "gallery," and City Theatre's artistic director, John Manzelli, makes mostly clever use of it. In a video introduction, Manzelli offers a self-deprecating backstage tour of Summer Shorts' preproduction. Filmed skits, which address the festival's history and its anniversary, run between plays.

Puppets and monsters and visual gags spill out of every filing cabinet, desk drawer, and cubicle.

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This celebratory atmosphere would work only if the plays did, and this year's selection of nine world and regional premieres is the company's strongest in recent memory. It's a thoughtfully curated collection of plays complete with overlapping themes. Nearly every work in this valentine to the audience contemplates love's splendors and splinters, from the initial pangs of budding relationships to regret-soaked encounters between former companions.

And with one or two exceptions, they're all comedies — some sly and deadpan, others anarchic and slapstick. All of them, despite their brevity, surprise us with twists. In previous years, the more lackluster comedies of Summer Shorts felt like SNL sketches that had overstayed their welcome: single-joke concepts mercilessly extended, like dried-out sponges still being squeezed. This time, the concepts blossom and the characters take on added dimension, creating richer opportunities for the actors and their audience.

A great example is Kelly Younger's award-nominated Mandate. Two straight fathers — Michael Uribe's Drew and Bechir Sylvain's Marc — meet for a guys' night out that promptly gets real. Clad in a hilarious yellow-sleeved My Little Pony T-shirt, Drew reveals that, as a father of young daughters, he's become friendless and feminized. As Drew's emotional floodgates open, it prompts Marc to express his own anxieties. Bolstered by the actors' magnetic chemistry and Manzelli's tonally perfect direction, a story that could have lapsed into familiar gay-panic discomfort becomes an absorbing story of unlikely connection, a bromantic comedy in microcosm.

Another indisputable highlight is Edith Freni's Flare, in which an off-duty pilot (Tom Wahl) has the unfortunate luck of sitting next to a foulmouthed, anxious passenger (Elizabeth Dimon) during a flight from New York to Miami. Dimon's paranoid gabber begins as a caricature and becomes real as motivations become clear that are both eccentric and touching. Her work in this short and others is a mini-master class in understanding character psychology; in ten minutes, she pinpoints the subtle gradations in mood and gesture necessary to create a character's worldview.

Holli Harms' Cougar is another winning comedy about an unexpected, life-affirming rendezvous, with Uribe as a young Latin lover who woos his late father's paramour, played by Karen Stephens. In Patricia Cotter's The Anthropology Section, onetime lesbian partners (Stephens and Dimon) encounter each other in a bookstore and begin a debate about the necessity of same-sex marriage. (Incidentally, this thoughtful play takes on the same subject as Michael McKeever's sensational new work, Daniel's Husband, running at Fort Lauderdale's Empire Stage.)

And in Kelly Younger's Let's Get Physical, the central connection is between a lonely copilot (Wahl) and his potential new girlfriend (Chasity Hart), who happens to be a medical intern for his doctor (Sylvain) the day of his annual physical. This one almost spirals into that repetitive sub-SNL category, but the actors' vigor and control, along with director Paul Tei's savvy staging, stave off predictability.

If there's one play that doesn't work, it's the show's annual foray into tragedy, Risen From the Dough, about the co-owners of a Haitian bakery in Miami who await a health inspector's visit while reconstructing a grievous loss. Stephens and Hart try valiantly, but they can't turn these strangers into characters deserving of our tears in less than ten minutes. The piece might work better if it were expanded into a full-length play.

Saving the most outrageous for last, Summer Shorts ends each of its two acts with deviant dispatches from the wilds of imagination. With its family-room set, Steve Yockey's world premiere Mrs. Evelyn Foxy and Her Low Orbit Anxiety is staged by Tei like a demented sitcom. Dimon is a kooky shut-in with a fear of falling satellites. Hart is her long-suffering daughter. And Sylvain is a door-to-door environmental activist who picked the wrong house on the wrong morning. Uribe appears later for an uproarious revelation.

But nothing is more brilliantly bonkers than R. Eric Thomas' Silicon Valley satire Human Resources, with Wahl as a startup drone frustrated by the new hires his company installed in a merger — all of whom happen to be puppets, operated Avenue Q-style by Stevens, Sylvain, Uribe, and the Summer Shorts interns. The piece itself could be funnier, but Manzelli's direction is a choreographic clown car in the best way possible, with puppets and monsters and sound bites and visual gags spilling out of every filing cabinet, desk drawer, and cubicle.

Like a lost sketch from Wonder Showzen, the joke-a-second virtuosity of Human Resources makes for a tantalizing mise en scène that pulls your eye in multiple directions simultaneously and should be seen more than once to be fully appreciated.

For the first time in many years, Summer Shorts leaves you wanting more.