City Theatre’s annual Summer Shorts festival has been a fondly anticipated staple of South Florida summers for 20 years now.
Shorts Gone Wild, a joint project of City Theatre and Island City Stage, is a relative new kid on the block. Its latest edition, now playing at Fort Lauderdale’s Empire Stage and headed for a short run at the Fillmore Miami Beach in September, is just its third.
But the format — LGBT-themed short plays (some of them new works by South Florida playwrights) performed by an energetic company in an intimate setting — is a winning one. So this edgier, more modestly produced shorts fest may stick around for a long time too.
Shorts Gone Wild 3 features eight plays, with City’s artistic director John Manzelli, Island City’s artistic director Andy Rogow, Gail S. Garrisan and Kevin Black directing two each.
Part of the playful, audience-involving spirit of the show is the idea that the order of the plays is randomly determined at each performance. A theatergoer plucks a number from a hat held by cast member Niki Fridh, then the corresponding numbered pair of cardboard “shorts” is plucked from the wall and turned around, revealing the title of the next play. (Call me skeptical, but it’s hard to imagine that the one play featuring all six cast members, Michael McKeever’s The Agenda, coincidentally came up last. Critics!)
On opening night, Patricia Cotter’s The Anthropology Section kicked things off. Done in June by two different performers during Summer Shorts, the play brings together former partners Marion (Fridh) and Tessa (Gladys Ramirez). The two make awkward, emotionally charged small talk until Tessa reveals she’s just returned from her honeymoon — the issue of marriage having been one of the things that caused the couple’s split. It’s a charged conversation, and Fridh brings emotional depth to a woman registering what her beliefs cost her.
Tony Finstrom’s wry, drenched-in-theater-lore play Oldest Living Chorus Boy Tells All or The Last of Billy Button features Larry Buzzeo in the title role. Elderly, confined to a wheelchair and sporting a glittery pink mortar board, Billy is sharing his memories from a lifetime of dancing behind stars — often in flops — with some fresh-faced young grads. For all his bad calls and rose-tinted memories, Billy has no regrets, and though the play is a bit longer and denser than it needs to be, it’s a sweet showbiz valentine.
Buzzeo returns right away as Rick, a guy waiting nervously with his partner Gary (Antonio Amadeo) outside a church where a funeral service is about to begin. Michael Leeds’ I’m Going First finds the two gently sparring about which will die first and what life might be like for the one left behind. The play is full of the humor and tenderness that float above deeper feelings, and the actors have an easy chemistry.
Becca Schlossberg’s Hands is a complex play beautifully staged by Garrisan, with another masterful performance by Amadeo opposite Craig Moody. Moody’s Nathan is a handsome high school kid attracted to Amadeo’s nerdy, reclusive Will. A friendship turns into something more, and as the two stand side-by-side describing their intimacy, Will’s seven-year-old self resurfaces with a tale of confusion and abuse.
Amadeo and Fridh are paired in the other Garrisan-directed play, Sheri Wilner’s The One, arguably the most flawless offering in Shorts Gone Wild 3. Fridh is Amy — “Ames,” he calls her — to Amadeo’s newly engaged Chris. Lovers in college, friends ever since he came out, the two are nervously catching up before Chris’ new (and jealous) finance arrives to finally meet the very important Amy. Wilner, Garrisan and the two fine actors explore the complexities of soul mates mismatched in one very important way.
Stuart Meltzer’s scathingly funny Quiche or Quinoa brings together three pals for yet another round of dishing over dirty martinis with blue cheese-stuffed olives. Alan (Buzzeo) has his eye on the hot waiter (Moody) while trying to keep the prickly, competitive Kerry (Fridh) calm as they await the arrival of their friend Elyse (Christina Groom). Kerry’s whole persona seems built around beating Elyse in the game of life, so she’s practically vibrating with anxiety over how she’ll one-up her “friend.”
Paul Rudnick’s strong voice is omnipresent in My Husband, in which Moody plays a son rushing to his anguished mother’s side, only to discover that her latest “crisis” has nothing whatsoever to do with her health. Mom (Groom), it turns out, is very competitive with other mothers of gay sons. So it seems she has placed this teensy, over-the-top, entirely made up wedding announcement featuring her unattached son and a fictional groom in the Sunday New York Times. It’s well-played, observant satire.
McKeever’s The Agenda pairs the playwright’s gift for intertwining humor with serious issues (as he did recently, at greater length, in his Island City Stage world premiere play Daniel’s Husband). The Agenda imagines that there really is a committee devising a “gay agenda,” and that political sensitivity (or correctness) leads to ever longer and more inclusive acronyms. It’s a tricky little piece with a powerful conclusion. Rigged or not, it’s a good way to end Shorts Gone Wild 3.
If you go
What: Shorts Gone Wild 3: ‘The One’ by Sheri Wilner, ‘Hands’ by Becca Schlossberg, ‘The Anthropology Section’ by Patricia Cotter, ‘I’m Going First’ by Michael Leeds, ‘Oldest Living Chorus Boy Tells All or The Last of Billy Button‘ by Tony Finstrom, ‘Quiche or Quinoa’ by Stuart Meltzer, ‘The Agenda’ by Michael McKeever.
Where: City Theatre/Island City Stage production at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Dr., Fort Lauderdale, through Sept. 6 (moves to Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Sept. 10-13).
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday.