City Theatre’s Summer Shorts, the first of the two big back-to-back theater festivals at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, is up and running on the newly christened Susan Westfall Playwrights Stage in the Arsht’s Carnival Studio Theater. (Next month, the XXIX International Hispanic Theatre Festival moves in.)
Ten little plays make up the 19th edition of Summer Shorts, and as usual, the programming is a mixture heavy on comedy but with just enough drama for those who crave meaning and emotional impact even in the shortest of plays.
Tying such disparate material together is just one of the challenges that producing artistic director John Manzelli and his creative colleagues face each year. Last summer, the pieces were presented as though they were works of art in a gallery.
This time, we get a Summer Shorts fashion show. Jodi Dellaventura’s minimalist set is dotted with mannequins in slinky black gowns, and erector-set metal towers frame the back of the open playing area. The pieces are described as coming from different “collections,” and five attractive young dancers keep a glitzy party vibe going between plays. It’s a concept, alright, but it doesn’t work nearly as well (nor make as much sense) as the gallery idea.
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But the plays, of course, are the thing at Summer Shorts.
This year’s batch includes world premieres, scripts from a pair of play-writing contests, and pieces first done elsewhere. Depending on the play, the writing is clever, funny, touching or not quite as tight and satisfying as the playwright imagines. While there aren’t any outright misses in the group, neither is the program loaded with brilliant examples of the short-play form at its most hilarious or moving.
Under the direction of Margaret M. Ledford, Paul Tei, Ricky J. Martinez and Manzelli, veteran Shorts actors Irene Adjan, Tom Wahl and Elizabeth Dimon deliver rock-solid performances alongside newcomers David Perez-Ribada, Niki Fridh, Mcley Lafrance and Mary Sansone. No one in the company indulges in scene-stealing shenanigans; instead, the seven pros serve up varied characters, accents and attitudes appropriate to each piece. Costume designer Ellis Tillman gives the actors a huge assist with an array of outfits that communicate class, character and style before the first line is uttered.
In Mira Gibson’s Old Flame, a woman (Fridh) runs into her ex (Perez-Ribada) at the grocery store, and despite each having moved on (she with Wahl, he with Sansone), the hint of a still-smoldering spark flares. Lafrance, who co-directed (with Manzelli) and performs Richard Dresser’s monologue Halftime, plays a middle school basketball coach whose mid-game pep talk becomes a funny study in personal over-sharing.
John Minigan’s It’s the Jews, an inside-theater play, pits Perez-Ribada as an earnest playwright against Dimon as a comically insensitive, skillfully manipulative artistic director. Leslie Ayvazian’s The Click, full of low-grade midlife angst, features Adjan and Wahl as a long-married couple on an unsatisfying getaway. A cat takes over the lives of two roommates (Lafrance and Perez-Ribada) in Shock and Awww by Dan Castellaneta and Deb Lacusta, who imagine what might happen if felines ruled the world as thoroughly as they dominate YouTube.
Miami playwright Theo Reyna portrays the possible breakup of Scotland and the United Kingdom as a domestic split in The Scottish Play, a piece with humor and heft and fine performances by Dimon (as Scotland), Wahl (as the U.K.), Lafrance (as the United States) and Sansone (as the warring couple’s defiant teen daughter Oil). Another highlight of this year’s group is Paul Rudnick’s My Husband, dominated by the way-funny Adjan as a Jewish mom who would love nothing more than to see her decidedly unattached gay son (Perez-Ribada) pop up in the New York Times’ Sunday weddings section.
Arlitia Jones’ Tornado, winner of City Theatre’s 2014 National Award for Short Playwriting, features Wahl as a dad talking to Lafrance as a clerk in a sporting goods store. The play takes a sharp, devastating turn, yet it’s jammed with so much detail that it ultimately isn’t as powerful as Jones intends. Holli Harms’ Make John Patrick Shanley Go Home, another inside-theater piece, features Dimon and Adjan as Shanley-style sisters trying to emotionally rally their sis (Fridh) when she spots the Oscar- and Pulitzer-winning playwright at a restaurant’s bar. The program’s closing play, Steve Yockey’s hilariously ghoulish Joshua Consumed an Unfortunate Pear, was cut short at Saturday’s opening when a theatergoer (who is OK) had a medical emergency and the performance was halted.
Overall? The 19th Summer Shorts is short on standouts but long on journeyman work.