Monday, July 31, 2017

SUMMER SHORTS 2017, Festival of New American Short Plays, Arrives at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Quincy Dunn-Baker and Claire Karpen in JACK, one of three plays in SUMMER SHORTS 2017 - SERIES A.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Summer Shorts 2017 marks the eleventh annual season that this festival of six new American one act plays is appearing at 59E59 Theaters.  It is like a flight of light rose wines or white wine spritzers – not very heady stuff, to be sure, but a pleasant respite from the more consequential considerations of our lives as we enter upon the dog days of summer.
 
This year’s program is in two parts playing in repertory: Series A consists of Jack by Melissa Ross, Playing God by Alan Zweibel and Acolyte by Graham Moore while Series B includes Break Point by Neil LaBute, A Woman by Chris Cragin-Day and Wedding Bash by Lindsey Kraft and Andrew Leeds.  Series B hasn’t opened yet but we’ve just seen Series A and enjoyed it very much.

To my mind, Jack was clearly the best of the three plays.  It was a very endearing treatment of the difficulties of dealing with death, loss and moving on.  Maggie (Claire Karpen) and George (Quincy Dunn-Baker) have been divorced for six months but still see each other every week to hand off their pet dog, Jack, of whom they have shared custody ever since their separation.  But Jack’s death (at age 18) has broken their last remaining link to one another and neither of them seem to be dealing with it very well.  Both Ms Karpen’s and Mr. Dunn-Baker’s performances are superb – nuanced and sensitive.


L-R: Bill Buell and Dana Watkins in PLAYING GOD,one of three plays in SUMMER SHORTS 2017 - SERIES A.  Photo by Carol Rosegg. 


Playing God was the least substantial of the three plays, a bit of fluff with some humorous moments.  When Doctor Fisher (Dana Watkins) unilaterally decides to induce the birth of Barbara Graber’s (Flora Diaz) baby a week before its due date simply so that he can go on vacation, God (Bill Buell) is so piqued by the doctor’s arrogance in usurping God’s right to determine when a child will be born that he comes down to Earth to put the doctor in his place – which ultimately seems to mean not much more than trouncing him at squash.  God’s Assistant (Welker White) shows up too and she’s so annoyed at the doctor that she gives him – wait for it – a cold sore!  There are some funny lines which might have worked better in the Borscht Belt and Buell is rather droll in his role but otherwise the play doesn’t amount to very much.


L-R: Sam Lilja, Orlagh Cassidy, Bronte England-Nelson, and Ted Koch in ACOLYTE, one of three plays in SUMMER SHORTS 2017 - SERIES A.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Acolyte is a fictionalized rendering of a scene that actually might have occurred in the life of Ayn Rand, arguably the most influential novelist of the twentieth century.  She was a major influence on intellectuals and politicians on both the left and the right and is probably more responsible for the growth of the libertarian movement than anyone else.

It has been known for decades that Ayn Rand had an affair with Nathaniel Branden, her principal acolyte and a man young enough to be her son – with the full knowledge and begrudging acceptance of both Rand’s husband and Branden’s wife.  The play is set in Rand’s apartment late on a Saturday night and those in attendance are Ayn Rand (Orlagh Cassidy); her husband, Frank O’Connor (Ted Koch); Nathaniel Branden (Sam Lilja); and his wife, Barbara (Bronte England-Nelson).  And it is the premise of the play that this was when and how Ayn informed Frank and Barbara of her intention to sleep with Nathaniel and obtained their acquiescence to her scheme.

In a note in the play’s script, the playwright actually contends “Note: This actually happened” though what exactly “this” refers to is not clear.  If it is simply the fact that Rand and Branden had an affair with the full knowledge and acceptance of their spouses – well, we already knew that.  But if it is that the scene depicted in the play actually occurred – well, then one might wonder how the playwright could possibly know that.

There is no denying that Ayn Rand was a forceful, creative and challenging individual who had a significant influence on political thought to this day.  But she was also something of a two-dimensional cardboard character who saw everything in terms of black and white – and something of a hypocrite to boot.  It is to Grahan Moore’s credit that he has succeeded in capturing both of these aspects of her persona.  On the one hand, he has given her the best monologue of the play, the one in which she demolishes both liberal and conservative thinking:

“The liberals believe that God is dead and that we live only for the betterment of the least fortunate.  First they extended their helpful hand to women, then Jews, then the blacks, and soon enough it will be the sapphists and queers and whatever other supposed unfortunates they can unearth.  The mob will grow in number, and it is the the mob to which they pray.  Too dumb to realize that that if they give the mob this power of righteousness – that if morality is only what the mob decrees at any given moment – then what is right and true and just will change every spring with the blooming of the lilies.  Today’s hero will become tomorrow’s villain.  And eventually, one day, with the fire of an Old Testament plague, the collective’s opprobrium will burn us all.  The Bolsheviks came for my father.  The Leninists came for me.  The liberals will come for you.

“And the conservatives?  They’re even worse.  Their hypocrisy runs so deep that they devote the entirety of their intellectual energy to disentangling their knotted limbs.  How many pointless words has Mr. Buckley vomited on the page to explain the obvious and laughable contradiction that cleaves his mushy brain in two.  He is a capitalist, who believes in the free market.  But he is also a Christian, who believes that we must love our neighbors as ourselves.  Well: you cannot do both.  If Christianity teaches that each of us has a touch of heaven’s grace within our soul, that our worth derives from god – then our worth cannot be measured in dollars, and it cannot come from the marketplace.  Is my value determined by the light in my breast or the labors of my body?  The history of this country is that of Christians claiming to believe in the market so long as it suits them, or capitalists praying fervently to a god that deep down they know isn’t real.  The liberals ae dumber, true, but at least they’re fucking honest.”

And yet, on the other hand, Moore makes it abundantly clear that there is another side to the story as well.  And so, he has Barbara Branden addressing Ayn Rand like this:

“…you’re a hypocrite.  You claim the mantle of a tradition of knowledge straight from Aristotle, but you know what?  You’re just like every other street corner preacher with a bible in one hand and a collection jar in the other.  You gussy it up in your books with this faux-academic language – ‘epistemological crises’ and ‘problems with the universals’ - but you never even went to a university.  You’re not a philosopher.  You’re not even an artist – you’re a con artist.  You twist your system of beliefs to grant you whatever it is that you want in the moment.  Fame?  Money?  My husband’s cock?  I was 15 years old when a girl in my neighborhood lent me her copy of The Fountainhead.  I read your story about an iconoclast who didn’t give a damn what anyone else thought – a character who lived completely for himself, by his own rules, without a second’s concern for the chattering of the naysayers.  You know what I learned?  Not to back down to a bully.  To stand up for what I want, what I believe, what I hold dear, no matter what crap anybody spits in my face.  So thank you, Ayn, for teaching me that lesson.  You want to have sex with my husband?  Apparently, there is nothing I can do to stop you.  But you want my permission?  Fuck you.  You either get to live out your twisted sexual fantasies or you get to stand there atop that marble pillar of righteousness.  But you don’t get to do both.”

Orlagh Cassidy’s portrayal of Ayn Rand is pitch-perfect, capturing her intellectual pretensions, her cool self-centered rationalism, and her idiosyncratic passionate sexual narcissism.  Sam Lilja and Bronte England-Nelson are equally good as Nathaniel and Barbara Brandon, exhibiting the unwavering loyalty to their cult leader that only twenty-somethings can muster.  And Ted Koch provides just the proper balance in his role as Frank O’Connor, Ayn Rand’s relatively unschooled husband, an actor/painter wannabe who really doesn’t comprehend what his wife and her followers are even talking about (and doesn’t much care that he doesn’t so long as he can drown his pain in alcohol).    


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