Three summer shorts worthy of longer runs from Rudnick, LaBute and Davis and Hartley

59 E 59th Street Theatre is home to an organization called Throughline Artists whose mission it is to preserve the traditions of the theatre for the next generation by providing opportunities for established professionals to work with and pass on knowledge to emerging artists.  They have an annual festival of new works, and this summer they’ve offered us six short plays in series A and B. I caught the B series, and I thought you might like to know more about what it contained. The series closed September 1, but these works are interesting and will undoubtedly show up in all neighborhoods, so I think they are worth noting.

Peter Bartlett in CABIN PRESSURE. (Photo: Rahav Segev)

Paul Rudnick supplied a one-acter called Cabin Pressure.  Rudnick is one of the most original and irreverant playwrights of our time, and his outrageous takes on life in this century include full length works like I Hate Hamlet and The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told.  His collection of essays is called “I Shudder”, his screenplays are “Addams Family Values” and “In and Out” which put an unusual spin on the new century’s attitudes about gays coming out or staying in the closet.  It offered Kevin Kline one of his choicest comedy roles in film. Rudnick is also a frequent contributor to the New Yorker.

In actor Peter Bartlett he has found the perfect human embodiment of his wildly satirical mind.  In Cabin Pressure, Bartlett  plays “Ronald” a middle aged flight attendant who is slightly hysterical as he accepts the Medal of Honor from the President of the United States for his extraordinary courage in downing a terrorist passenger aboard one of his flights.  By the time Mr. Bartlett is through telling us just what happened we are convinced that that kindly Doctor and Nurse who carted Blanche DuBois off to the “rest home” in Streetcar will be showing up momentarily to do the same for Ronald.

But no, it’s Rudnick’s view that Ronald is just another ordinary guy, whose heart is always on display on his sleeve, who feels what he did does not deserve this honor, but on the other hand,  why not?  You’d have to be in severe gastric distress not to laugh yourself silly at the contortions, body and face, that this gifted clown brings to the rendering of his acceptance speech.  Mr. Bartlett has worked with Paul Rudnick before on several occasions, and we can only hope they will get together again very soon, for when they do, we are assured of a merry time indeed.

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Love and Real Estate, a musical, followed in this Series B, with music by Sam Davis and Book & Lyrics by Sean Hartley. Davis is a winner of the Jonathan Larson Award for composition and has important credits as an arranger and orchestrator as well. Hartley has Little Women and Cupid and Psyche among his composing credits, but he is also the Director of the Theatre Wing at the Kaufman Center in New York, where he produces the concert series “Broadway Close Up” and “Broadway Playhouse” which he also hosts.

Edward Hibbert and Kevin Greene in LOVE AND REAL ESTATE. (Photo: Rahav Segev)

He has also done work for the Disney Channel and composed a number of works for children, including Sunshine, based on a book by Ludwig Bemelmans.  Together, they have come up with a sprightly and enjoyable score for this half hour one act musical in which three sisters zeroing in on thirty, manage to make the move to the Big City, where they meet a guy who does them wrong.  Narrated by the very valuable Edward Hibbert who, like Peter Bartlett, always brings deliciously comic invention to everything he does, he keeps us on track in the complications of Mr. Hartley’s very original book.

The three ladies to play these sisters are okay, but it’s not good that I kept envisioning how major this work could  be if the likes of a young Bernadette Peters, Donna Murphy, Kelli O’Hara were having a go at them. Each of the sisters has an aria or two, but the most effective of them is Jessica Hershberg as the Plain Jane sister who turns out to be the craftiest of them all.  Kevin Greene as the boy toy for whom they all fall convinces as the innocent pretty boy who turns out to be not quite so innocent after all. His voice is like buttery maple syrup.  Mr. Hibbert joins him by leaving his narrator’s stool now and then to croon a delicately comical number much in the style of the Master, Noel Coward, and to engage in some very funny word play that keeps the plot boiling. Neatly and inventively staged by Devanand Janki, this little gem is a most refreshing opera comique in miniature.

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The Furies completes the evening with a bang.  A short play by Neil LaBute whose half  dozen films and dozen plays have established him as a major force in the media with his highly sardonic and cynical view of our times.

Victor Slezak, Alicia Goransen and J.J. Kandel in THE FURIES. (Photo: Rahav Segev)

Anyone who can turn out a title for the stage such as Filthy Talk For Troubled Times is not going to be turning out material that would have attracted George Abbott as director.  His new play brings to mind the early Albee one-act Zoo Story, in that they both begin quietly in an open space (in this case, a table at an outdoor cafe).  A middle aged man called “Barry” is awaiting the arrival of a young man (“Jimmy”) who does show up accompanied by his sister (“Jamie”).

As played by Victor Slezak, J.J.Kandel and Alicia Goranson, the firecrackers begin to crackle from the start. Jamie has temporarily lost her voice to some throat ailment, and she has come to protect her brother, who is more like her other half, from any harm that might come from his relationship as paramour to the older Barry.  She is in constant communication with her bother, by cupping her hand over her mouth and whispering urgently in his ear.

The three excellent actors bring incredibly smooth and effective ensemble acting to bear, made even more remarkable by the shortness of the run. They use each other so beautifully you’d think they’d been at it for months.  Suspense is built rapidly, and sustained throughout and the conclusion is just obscure enough to cause healthy post-theatre conversation as to just what did go down.  If Mr. LaBute were new to us, I’d call him “highly promising.”  As he’s already proven his worth, I say “Another landmark, albeit a small one, in his distinguished career as playwright.”

The play is staged beautifully by Stephen Hamilton who has been doing fine work at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor for many years, as well as the John Drew Theatre in Easthampton. Married to author/educator Emma Walton Hamilton, his mother-in-law is Julie Andrews, his father-in-law the gifted designer Tony Walton. It looks like a dynasty is being built here, and more power to them all.

The Summer Shorts series has ended. Find more information about Throughline Artists here.

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Richard Seff, who, in his career on Broadway has been a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stagecelebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.  Read more at RichardSeff.com

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