Saturday, July 7, 2018

Review: The Best Short Play of Your Psast, Present, and Future

By Ed Malin

Nylon Fusion is celebrating many years of its intriguing This Round’s On Us festivals of short plays.  Their current The Best Of programs A and B at the Medicine Show Theatre bring together 14 quality short plays which have been selected from earlier festivals.  High-profile Nylon Fusion regulars John Patrick Shanley and Don Nigro are represented, as are many other masters of this genre whose work is usually in evidence on New York stages.  The audience gets to vote on which of these plays Nylon Fusion should develop into longer works (which, believe me, they do quite well).  The producers often provide free drinks between sets.  You will see poignant, punchy works about all aspects of human nature.  I have enjoyed a lot of Nylon Fusion’s work in the past, and urge you to check them out and help contribute to their cutting-edge development process.
Time Fixers (written by Adam Sullivan, directed by Lori Kee) is a delightful depiction of a live adventure program broadcast from the golden age of radio. In this wholesome-seeming story, the Time Fixers journey back in time to stop supercriminals from changing history. The elder Time Fixer (Josh Marcantel) and his young assistant (Skyler Gallen) jump back to 1865 to see about President Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth (Ben Gougeon).  This famous actor and racist has been persuaded by a vile criminal (also portrayed by Ben Gougeon) that the country would still be an OK place if Lincoln survived the war, and so Booth vows to devote more time to Shakespeare and to cancel his murderous plans. The radio stage manager (Helen Herbert) helps out as the Time Fixers butt heads over their assignment.  Must someone actually still kill Lincoln?  Beth Griffin does incredible work onstage as the “foley” sound effects artist: shutting doors, generating machine noise and doing a mean horse impression.
Under The Overpass (written by Steven Young, directed by Janet Bentley) is the story of an averted car accident.  Joey (Nik Duggan), a Caucasian driver who almost hits Leonard, a homeless African-American man (Sean Leigh Phillips). At first, the two are more or less relieved that no one has come to harm, but then questions of privilege and race emerge.  This is a clever piece about an unavoidable intersection of human paths which the system tries to keep apart.
Chain Link (written by Deb Hiett, directed by Lori Kee) shows us the beautiful use of the age-old child’s contraption: a telephone made of two cans and a string.  This device circumvents a man-made border, and allows Jonas (Skyler Gallun), a local boy and Ayeesha (Nikita Tewani/Divya Sethi), a resident of the area’s refugee camp, to remain in contact.  The hijab-wearing Ayesha doesn’t know she’s beautiful, and she thinks the best thing Jonas can do for her is to lend her some reading material to relieve the tedium of camp life. Little does she know that “Twilight” is not a classic. This is an understated, evocative play which has only become more relevant since its initial production.
5 Sandwiches (written by Michael Puzzo, directed by Janet Bentley) brings us a prize-winning view of the inside and outside of Charles Lindbergh’s airplane as he perseveres in the first Transatlantic flight. As he flies, Lindbergh (Reid Prebenda) is somewhat lonely and full of self-doubt.  He does not notice the three dead spirits (Ed Jewett, Neil Tyrone Pritchard and Kevin Cristaldi/Ivan Goris) who sit on the wings of his plane.  The three spirits grab the extra sandwiches which the frustrated Lindbergh throws out the window.  Showing us that the vagueness of life continues after death, the spirits reveal that they don’t remember their past lives.  However, they do know pop culture, and launch into a heartfelt, anachronistic homage to the 1990 film “Ghost”, with stunning Righteous Brothers vocals from Neil Tyrone Pritchard.  They note that for all they know, this film’s star, Patrick Swayze, may have been one of them.  They discuss whether Lindbergh’s technological innovations outweigh his Nazi sympathies.  The play succeeds in bringing humor to the most morose and heavy metaphysical issues.
photo by Al Foote III
Interval, Impulse (written by Peter Hsieh, directed by Ivette Dumeng) brings us into the near future, where humans have developed the technology to plug their minds directly into an interface with a computer. Mary Monahan is seem to have the jittery side effects that accompany this presumably necessary and beneficial technological advance. Amanda (Molly Collier) is then engaged in conversation by Davey (Ben Gougeon), an escapee from the outcast Texas Sector 9, who can tell that she has been plugging in. Amanda reminds Davey of a lost ex-girlfriend.  Is Amanda really OK? Does she occasionally see a slow progression of colors, or is she now unable to think of anything but numbers?  Pythagoras may have considered numbers to be the perfect form of expression, but what are flesh and blood people supposed to do when technology turns toxic? I see this cautionary tale as applicable to cell phones and anything else we simply must have. We are probably lying to ourselves if we think there is no danger.
Final Request (written by Tariq Hamani, directed by Lori Kee) pulls no punches. We dive right into the emotional state of Jack (Omar Bustamante), a death row inmate about to enter the execution chamber. His guard (Helen Herbert) listens with compassion as Jack wonders about the fate of innocent people such as himself. The guard, who has seen it all, has her own reasons which leave her inclined to believe him. Creating doubt so skillfully does tend to undermine the entire system. I'm glad that this very expressive, human moment was part of the program.
Under The Pomegranate Trees (written by Don Nigro, directed by Ivette Dumeng) takes place on a languid day in the South around the 1960s. Two girlfriends talk about their love lives during high school, their female powers, and their formative influences such as Marilyn Monroe. The blonde Patty (Merissa Czyz) is a bit aloof but sounds very certain of her ability to charm any man. She even borrowed the man her best brunette friend Sharon (Lily DePaula) considered her true love. She is further emboldened to give a taste of her romantic powers to her friend, right under the titular pomegranate tree. I think you'll agree, Mr. Shanley has a way with words and female characters.  This piece goes straight to the heart but without the sentimentality that women apparently employ when men are present. My favorite line is the very direct Sharon after judging her classmates who are all on drugs: “I’m a very dark girl. I tan.  You burn.”
I Knew It! (written by Scott Sickles, directed by Janet Bentley) gives an an inkling of the adjustments a young woman must make when she marries an aging, narcissistic rock star. Jodilyn (Kate Garfield), the fifth wife of a rock legend, is shocked to have found her new husband in bed with another man.  Specifically the other man and her man were becoming very friendly in bed next to her while she slept. Francesca (Thea McCartan), who is only the second wife of her veteran performer-cum-sex symbol, has seen an awful lot.  In her proper tone of voice, and brandishing a snifter, she tells Jodilyn what she might expect from a life with a man who needs lots of attention.  Perhaps there’s a reason Francesca’s own husband has stayed married to her so long.  Would Jodilyn like to cash in her pre-nup?  Does she realize she is in some way a footnote to a more famous life?  The drama in this one is most enjoyable even when, like in the soaps, we are watching people suffer.
Stranger In A Strange Land (written by Karen Macklin, directed by Ivette Dumeng) focuses on Lynn (Taylor Graves), a hard-working woman who moved from New York to San Francisco and now finds the men impossible to date.  We see Lynn meet Shiva (Sean Leigh Phillips), a spiritual dude who prefers not to buy or sell anything and who loves body cleanses. She goes on a date with Brian (JJ Condon), a gentleman with many female roommates, who founded the handsy website and who avers he is looking for a serious relationship. Lynn finds herself at the beach on a rare, warm day with Paul (Brian Vestal), who is sorry she feels uncomfortable about it being a nude beach, nevertheless wants to enjoy his day off and arranges her car ride home. Finally, at the San Francisco MoMA, Lynn is approached by the gentle, sincere Brendan (Ryan Molly).  A confirmed skeptic of West Coast smoke and mirrors, she vents a bit to Brendan about her difficulties with people who don’t say what they mean. Brendan finds her very real and refreshing, and suddenly they both have someone they can talk to.  You will probably appreciate the great range of Taylor Graves.
Surly Bonds Of Earth (written by Janet Bentley, directed by Lori Kee) takes place in early 1986 at the launching of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Mike (Sam Mercer), a student, is having a fast-food breakfast treat with his NASA researcher father, Carl (Mike Roche).  Carl is surprised that the shuttle will be launched this morning, since the temperature is colder than normal and there had been recommendations to postpone the launch. On the other side of the stage, as they prepare to film the launch, Marge (Laura Pruden) speaks with her granddaughter, Mary (Phoebe Brooks) about the crew of this shuttle, including the teacher, Christa McAuliffe.  McAuliffe is a real woman, “with thighs”, not a highly-trained astronaut. Since several chicken eggs will be aboard the space shuttle, Kentucky Fried Chicken has paid for many television ads about the launch. Carl and Mike are surprised to hear that the shuttle will be launching today, while Mary and Marge are very focused on filming the ascent of the shuttle. Unfortunately, this was a tragic day, one that the two groups of spectators handle very differently. Who was to blame for the disaster?  Did her fans value Christa McAuliffe when she was alive?
The Encounter (written by Michael Panes, directed by Janet Bentley) is a glimpse of a scientist and his wife trying to communicate on a special night.  Sandra (Maiken Wiese) is proudly setting dinner on the table when her husband Jerry (Alex Ferrill) arrives.  Due to an exciting development at work, he has forgotten their first anniversary.  Sandra, a compliant housewife, the arc of whose Catholic upbringing does to bend toward divorce, has a hard time believing this is her life. Jerry explains that he heard a loud transmission of noise from space which argues for extraterrestrial life. Jerry promises he was planning to buy Sandra a beautiful rug for their anniversary, but was so excited he forgot. As an example of their different  functions, he remembers  the thread count while she remembers the price. Unfortunately, the present Jerry recalled in such detail was something Sandra’s mother wanted.  Still in hot water, Jerry sits down to eat the dinner his wife has lovingly prepared.  He plays her the recording from space. She does not appreciate it the way he does. 
Youth Hostel (written by Alysha Silver, directed by Lori Kee) tells the story of the mid-twenties Jake (Daniel Florio) and the teenage Silas (Skyler Gallun), who meet in a youth hostel somewhere on the fringes of society. They talk about the things they've had to do to survive, and they form a bond.  They talk about occasional episodes of living in a fixed place, and of making tomato sauce with real tomatoes; half the flavor’s in the feeling.  Jake tells how a rich lady once hired him to be her chauffeur, but then engaged in some secret role play using the names Miss Julie and Jean.  The ironic reference to the classic play is lost on both dudes.  Silas, who looks young but says he’s 20, wants to use his looks to make a living. He misses his family, who adopted him. Jake, who ran away from his family, scorns such attachment.  Jake and Silas look ready to become their own family, even in a dirty place (where it rains at night, when you can’t see it) lacking stability.  The emotion this play lays bare is beautiful to behold.  We are seeing the power of two people who want to rise up from rock bottom together.
Superman Never Saved No Black People (written by Ted Nash, directed by Ivette Dumeng) takes place at a New Year's Eve party at the end of the 1960s.  Jamal (Sean Phillips), African-American, a trumpeter, sits on the patio where he is joined by the host, Dick, who is Caucasian and a trombonist (Scott McLean). The two have many things in common, although Jamal is clearly impressed that at this historical moment he is speaking with someone so in tune with black culture and music.  But their affinity becomes strained as Dick talks of his rebellious youth and the time he spent a night in jail; Jamal reminds Dick that he has received five months of jail time for a smaller offense. Dick digs up platitudes about how slavery ended 100 years ago and how cats like Benny Goodman, grew up in the ghetto and so their life struggle can be heard in their music. Jamal just shakes his head and knows that he will become even more of a radical in the 1970s, probably with less help from liberals. This piece really shows how people can persuade themselves that there are such things as racial equality, solidarity and common goals. Whether we're talking about the progressive 1960s or right now, I have great respect for this play.
French Waitress (written by John Patrick Shanley, directed by Lori Kee and Janet Bentley) brings us into the middle of an impromptu lunch date between the laid-back Pamela (Robyn Cohen) and her pushy, British lawyer husband Ricky (Julian Elfer). Their waitress is Blanche (Ivette Dumeng), a French transplant who does everything in a leisurely fashion which goes well with the stated theme of the restaurant ("Organique"). Although Ricky does take notice of Blanche’s derriere, he grows frustrated when she brings him food he didn’t order and purposely takes her time. This level of frustration makes it impossible for Ricky and Pamela to connect.  Ricky dodges by explaining that he is not fully English; he is a quarter Basque, and,  no, the Basque people in Spain are separatists, not terrorists. Pamela further notes that for Ricky, intimacy is a way to be separate, not a way to connect. As Ricky finally tries the incredibly satisfying food (no matter if he ordered it), Blanche’s English amps up so that she, too, can tell Ricky what his problem is.  Ricky’s grandfather and his father walked slowly, but Ricky runs. Ricky is not behaving organically. How can he get back in synch with Pamela? This play’s dream-like imagery leads to a sweet and refreshing place. At one point or another, I found myself identifying with all of the characters. Under Lori Kee and Janet Bentley’s direction, Ivette Dumeng makes a big impression while saying comparatively little. She and Robyn Cohen and Julian Elfer go through a sensuous verbal dance which caught me quite by surprise. Such is the magic of John Patrick Shanley and Nylon Fusion.
These impressive programs of plays represent just a fraction of the work Nylon Fusion has produced in recent years. In The Best Of, directors Janet Bentley, Ivette Dumeng, and Lori Kee juggle an energetic, talented ensemble in fourteen fabulous pieces.  You can see the quality of this work, even in this setting with minimal sets and tech. Some will hopefully be developed into full-length plays, with rich costumes and scenery.  Notable full-length plays by Don Nigro and others have also been produced by Nylon Fusion in recent years, and several new works, including Nigro’s Tales With Teeth (Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, July 2018) are still to come this year.