A member of his Cabinet asked President Woodrow Wilson how long it took him to prepare his speeches. “It depends,” he said. “If I am to speak for ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”
As it is in speechifying, so it is in theater. There is nothing as challenging in writing as concision, in which the writer must boil down his story to a tiny, central pearl, “killing the darlings,” in Faulkner’s good phrase, by which he meant excising everything, no matter how brilliantly written or witty it is, which does not advance the central objective of the story.
Writing small is, moreover, a seductive exercise, in that the writer is less likely to recognize in a small space errors which might become obvious in a longer piece. Here, let me make a confession: I wrote a ten-minute play myself. It imagined the great existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in Hell, and more specifically the Hell he described in No Exit. He was to be companioned throughout eternity by a used-car salesman from Bethesda. While Sartre used his special powers to contact the living (as detailed in No Exit) in order to assess how people understood existentialism today, his companion used it to watch Redskins games. I thought it was hilarious, but other reviewers, including my dear bride, regarded it with the same enthusiasm that Gordon Ramsey might apply to roadkill.
So do we assign this task, difficult and prone to error, to our great writers? No, we do not. If Edward Albee, or Tom Stoppard, has ever written a ten-minute play, I am unaware of it. Instead, we impose this onerous requirement on our emerging writers, who take it on gamely as a rite of passage. In this instance, I am reviewing six of the eighteen short plays selected from about three hundred submitted to the Source Festival, and whittled down relentlessly by theater professionals.
The best of these from the offerings I reviewed (which adhered to the “Heroes and Home” theme of the full-length play Buried Cities, also a feature of the Source Festival) is unquestionably Jason Pizzarello’s Harold Eventually Reconciles with his Sister in One Second. Pizzarello was the only playwright to take risks with the form, because Harold Eventually is not a ten-minute play, but one- and half-minute iterations of the same play, which is this: Harold (Danny Pushkin), a soldier, returns from battle to attend a family funeral, and also to mend his relationship with his sister Julie (Kimberlee Wolfson). Each iteration, which ends with Julie’s demand “say you’re home,” reveals more information; when they say it the last time, it will break your heart. Superb work by the actors and director Anna Lathrop, as well as sound designer Robert Pike.
Lathrop, Pushkin and Wolfson are less effective in a similarly-themed offering, David MacGregor’s We Could Be Heroes. In that piece, Pushkin plays an on-call plumber who arrives to fix the toilet of Wolfson’s character, and ends up in an argument about whether her brother, who recently volunteered for the Marines, is a hero. This is basically the sort of argument you can hear, for free, at a faculty cocktail party in any part of the city. The upshot of the one-sided conversation is that the brother is not a hero, but the victim of a “bullshit train” in which heroes from all parts of the world kill each other, and that Wolfson’s character, who teaches 7th-grade science, is a hero.
In drawing this conclusion, MacGregor betrays the fact that he doesn’t understand heroism, which is not the same thing as social utility. Heroism is the willingness to act on principle, regardless of consequences. Thus Muhammad Ali was a hero for refusing to be inducted into the Army, and losing the prime three years of his boxing career as a result; and the hon. Max Cleland (D.Ga.) was a hero for accepting induction, and losing his legs and arms as a result. Notwithstanding the preachy nature of this short play (and my reaction to it) Pushkin and Wolfson show an easy comfort with their roles and with each other, and Lathrop directs with certainty and flair.
Two of the other ten-minute plays really sparkled, though. Alex Dreman’s Man in Peril was a sweet, slightly ridiculous story about a man actually in peril (Christopher Carilo) being rescued by a superhero (Joseph Graf) as they both attempt to escape the clutches of an evil villain (Ariana Almajan). As Lois Lane and her rescuer, the indomitable Superman, find their hearts racing from something other than adrenaline during their flight from evil, so too do our pair find themselves, shall we say, mixing Mars and Venus. Everything about this Kristen Pilgrim-directed production lampoons the tropes of the comic-book drama, from the clichéd dilemma to the superhero’s fruitless banging on the wall, which in actual fact sways back and forth in the rickety way that set scenery usually does. I do not know if it was planned that way, but it was a fitting climax to the Gay Pride Parade which marched up 14th Street, terminating near the Source Theatre.
I also liked That Kid by Jane Willis, a considerably more sober play — this one about a troubled youngster (Connor Hogan) at home with his grandmother (Mindy Shaw). This appears to be an everyday story in which Evelyn, a self-aware, tough-minded woman, deals with Fabian, roughly age ten, who is in trouble for spanking a girl at school, and whose dominant characteristic appears to be hostility toward everything but mustard sandwiches. He has a particularly vehement hostility toward the neighborhood deer. You will probably not get what this is about until the end, and if, when you do, you find yourself with a lump in your throat, I won’t blame you.
The other two playlets were, in my view, notso hotso. Love and Minor Destruction is about Nisha, a young Indian-American woman (Almajan) with an American boyfriend (Graf). Her big challenge is to break the news to her parents (Vanita Kalra and Shawn Jain), who want her to marry someone of Indian ancestry. Much of Maximillian Gill’s dialogue seems designed to serve the play’s dilemma (the parents are worried that their daughter will lose her heritage if she marries an American; boyfriend Colin conveniently disses elements of her heritage in the next scene) and thus comes out stilted and undermotivated. The bottom line is that I couldn’t buy Colin and Nisha as lovers; the dialogue marked them as strangers to each other, and the acting couldn’t make up for it. There were some funny lines, though, and a nice dance in the middle of it.
I was also not in love with Mark Eisman’s A Whiff of Humanity, in which the startling premise is that Jeff (Hogan), a man with a preternatural sense of smell (and a tendency to bark when excited), is discriminated against by a TSA Agent (Shaw), who insists on using dogs to sniff out drugs and weapons hidden in luggage. Jeff appears with his lawyer (Karen Elle), who threatens to sue the TSA for anti-human discrimination. There is a suitably familiar science-fictiony backstory and a few throwaway jokes, but they did not compensate for the low stakes. (What are they going to pay Jeff, anyway?
Heroes and Home
closes July 1, 2016
Details and tickets
Do the dogs fill a classification on the General Schedule?) What distinguishes this effort is Hogan’s good work as a dog-man, which, when coupled with his excellent work as a child in That Kid, marks him as an actor to watch.
So the plays in Heroes and Homes represent the bell-shaped curve: one superb story, a couple of good ones, and a couple which could use some work. There was nothing really awful, though, and certainly no stories about Jean-Paul Sartre being forced to watch Redskins games.
Heroes and Home consists of A Whiff of Humanity by Mark Eisman, directed by Rachel Murray; Love and Minor Destruction by Maximillian Gill, directed by Kristen Pilgrim; We Could be Heroes, by David MacGregor, directed by Anna Lathrop; Harold Eventually Reconciles with his Sister in One Second, by Jason Pizzarello, directed by Ms. Lathrop; That Kid, by Jane Willis, directed by Ms. Murray; and Man in Peril, by Alex Dreman, directed by Ms. Pilgrim. Featuring Ariana Almajan, Christopher Carillo, Karen Elle, Joseph Graf, Connor Hogan, Shawn Jain, Vanita Kalra, Danny Pushkin, Mindy Shaw and Kimberlee Wolfson. Set designer, Klyph Stanford . Costume designer, Shelby Marie Gable . Lighting designer, Nathaniel Collard . Sound designer, Robert Pike . Lisa Blythe, assisted by Caolan Eder, stage manager . Produced by CulturalDC’s Source Festival . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.