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59E59 Theaters, New York City

Summer Shorts Series B
3.0Reviewer's Rating

If there’s a thread that runs through the Summer Shorts (Series B) at 59E59, presented by Throughline Artists, it’s the stories we tell ourselves—about our pasts, our desires, and our identities—and how those stories might not withstand scrutiny.

The evening begins with Claire Zajdel’s “The Plot” (directed by James Rees), a dark comedy about two late-20-something siblings—the tightly wound, “harried” lawyer Frankie (Molly Groome) and her older brother Tyler (Jake Robinson), a boyish slacker—who are supposed to meet their mother in a cemetery. But Frankie and Tyler’s mother won’t be joining them: rather, we find out in a series of phone calls, she wants them to locate her newly purchased tombstone, and then choose their own plots nearby. Through this confrontation with mortality, Frankie and Tyler move from sarcastic sibling banter into a more direct interrogation of their personalities, relationships, and self-deceptions. While some of the humor is too broad and the exposition of personality traits is too explicit, we are left with the aching realization that staring death in the eye only seems to make us double down on the lies we tell ourselves rather than face unpleasant truths.

Eric Lane’s enigmatic “Ibis” (directed by Terry Berliner) explicitly addresses storytelling, as the play invokes, and incorporates elements from, film noir and fairytales. Tyrone (Deandre Sevon) hires a detective, Sam Spade (Lindsey Broad), to find his long-absent father. Spade pretends at first not to understand that she shares her name with Dashiell Hammett’s famous detective, portrayed on screen by Humphrey Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon.” But eventually that façade drops and she and Tyrone engage in a series of conversations about old movies and stories, and the slipperiness of truth and the dangers of assumptions, brought to vivid life by Sevon’s and Broad’s sensitive performances as well as Greg MacPherson’s evocative lighting. Spade locates Tyrone’s father, Victor (Harold Surratt), and Tyrone repeatedly confronts him, despite Victor’s hostile resistance to a reunion.

Lane’s work is suffused with a haunting strangeness, and despite some minor kinks, this is the play that will stick most deeply in my memory. It ends with Victor’s story of a childhood trip to Mexico, which involves the birds that give the play its title: a story both hopeful and forlorn, beautifully rendered by Surratt. Fittingly, it is a story that avoids an easily extracted moral: “I don’t believe in morals,” Sam says earlier in the play after Tyrone points out that her fairytale is missing one. “Why’s that?” he asks her. “Because it would mean there’s actually some order to the universe,” she replies.

Neil LaBute’s “Sparring Partner” (directed by J. J. Kandel), the most polished of the three plays, concludes the evening. LaBute’s two-character play, featuring terrific performances from Joanna Christie and Keilyn Durrel Jones, is a tender-hearted look at a would-be romantic relationship. The play begins in medias res with an unnamed man and woman sharing a laugh on a park bench as they play a movie-trivia game, which, we soon learn, is their lunchtime routine away from the office. The “sparring partner” of the title seems to refer both to the man and woman and their competitive but loving game (almost always won by the woman, unless she lets the man win), but also the man’s wife, who we never meet but who looms large as an unpleasant presence preventing romance from fully blossoming between the well-suited protagonists. While this caricature of a shrewish, nagging wife is a somewhat unfortunate device, the dialogue between the man and the woman is sharp and naturalistic, and the accumulation of small details gives us a full understanding of their feelings and their predicament. The play is ultimately melancholic—the man seems destined to remain unhappily married—but it is a refreshingly uncynical appreciation of what it means to be truly understood by another person, even if you don’t understand yourself.

  • Drama
  • By Neil LaBute, Eric Lane, and Claire Zajdel
  • Directed by Terry Berliner, J. J. Kandel, and James Rees
  • Cast includes: Molly Groome, Jake Robinson, Lindsey Broad, Deandre Sevon, Harold Surratt, Joanna Christie, Keilyn Durrel Jones,
  • 59E59 Theaters, New York City
  • Until 1 September 2018

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