Thursday, July 30, 2009

Summer Shorts Series A


Series A: Things My Afro Taught Me written and performed by Nancy Giles. Death by Chocolate by John Augustine, directed by Robert Saxner. A Second of Pleasure by Neil LaBute, directed by Andrew McCarthy. The Eternal Anniversary by Bill Connington, music and lyrics by Skip Kennon. At 59E59. (CLOSED)

Critics agree: of the four short plays offered at 59E59's Summer Shorts: Series A, about 1.75 are successful. Nancy Giles's Things My Afro Taught Me gets respectable marks as solo character entertainment, though not necessarily as a piece of theatre. And Neil LaBute's A Second of Pleasure receives unanimous praise for its mature emotional depth, tight craftsmanship, and stand-out performances from Margaret Colin and Victor Slezak. John Augustine's Death by Chocolate receives mostly low marks for being messy and unoriginal - though Aaron Paternoster gets multiple kudos for his supporting performance. And neither Skip Kennon nor Bill Connington get much love for their one-act musical The Eternal Anniversary. From the Critic-O-Meter's standpoint, the combined quartet of shorts shakes out to a series of low B's and C's, depending on how much chaff you're willing to thresh for the good stuff. Editor's Note: It was brought to our attention that there were some mathematical errors in the grading. They have been corrected, and the grade amended.

Variety B+
(Sam Thielman) For their third series of one-act plays, producers J.J. Kandel and John McCormack have rounded up enough talent for one good evening of theater, but they've stuck with their format and padded things out into two distinct bills of fare, containing roughly two good plays (out of four) each ... Then there's LaBute, whose shortform writing is so reliably good that it's a relief to see his name on the program. "A Second of Pleasure" (very close to the title of his surprisingly gentle short-story collection) follows a typically self-aggrandizing creep (Victor Slezak) and his adulterous lover (Margaret Colin), sketches its characters quickly and well and paces its clues about them perfectly ... John Augustine's contribution ("Death By Chocolate") is ... an unfunny comedy. Aaron Paternoster deserves a Purple Heart for his performance ... Slightly better is Skip Kennon and Bill Connington's micro-opera "The Eternal Anniversary," a deeply maudlin ghost story that tries to surprise and fails ... Nancy Giles' solo piece "Things My Afro Taught Me" survives solely on Giles' considerable charm.

CurtainUp B
(Les Gutman) I enjoyed the curtain-raiser, Nancy Giles's "Things My Afro Taught Me," though I am not sure I'd call it a play. Though dressed up in bits of theatricality, it would have a more comfortable fit as a stand-up act at a comedy club. That said, Ms. Giles is terrifically engaging, and just as incisive as she is funny. John Augustine's "Death by Chocolate" bites off more than it can chew, managing to go everywhere without getting anywhere. The best known playwright included in this quartet of plays is Neil Labute, and his "A Second of Pleasure" is just about everything you could hope for in a short play. Labute understands the needs of the short play genre, and fills those needs assiduously. The acting and direction could not be better. Kennon's songs and underscoring (all performed live by him on piano) are fine, if perhaps too period and craftmanlike for some tastes. The book, by Bill Connington, however, is about as creaky as it could be. Stated simply, there's not much here to go on, and what there is doesn't make a lot of sense.

Backstage B
(Mark Peikert) Things get off to a somewhat shaky start with writer-actor Nancy Giles' monologue "Things My Afro Taught Me." A winning and charismatic performer, Giles at first seems ill at ease sitting in a chair (Maruti Evans' scuffed black set looks painfully cheap) and talking to the audience about her struggles to accept her wild hair. But she gradually stands up and warms up, and an extended riff on a former boss at Lifetime is hilariously dead-on. Closing the first act, John Augustine's meandering comic drama "Death by Chocolate," about a woman dealing with the aftermath of her husband's titular demise, repeats many of the same diatribes against the isolation caused by technology that the playwright previously covered in "People Speak," part of "Summer Shorts 2." The evening finally kicks into high gear with Neil LaBute's "A Second of Pleasure," which, happily, finds the playwright writing about real adults instead of callow youths. As lovers arguing at the train station over whether she'll accompany him on a romantic getaway, Margaret Colin and Victor Slezak are both superb. The evening ends with Skip Kennon and Bill Connington's tone-deaf period musical "The Eternal Anniversary," a mind-boggling affair filled with more than its share of glaring plot holes.

Show Business Weekly B
(Ethan Kanfer) Of the four pieces that comprise Summer Shorts, a brisk evening of short works, the most solidly scripted is, unsurprisingly, Neil LaBute’s A Second of Pleasure ... Under Andrew McCarthy’s confident direction, Colin and Slezak hit the script’s poignant and bitingly comic notes with equal precision ... A different kind of unhappy couple can be found in Skip Kennon and Bill Connington’s The Eternal Anniversary ... DuSold infuses the seething score with a brooding intensity, while Rideout eerily embodies the role of a frail beauty doomed to remain forever young as her husband endures the ravages of time and the pain of a guilty conscience ... The title of Nancy Giles’s Things My Afro Taught Me says it all ... Afro feels like a work in progress, with Giles clearly more confident in certain beats than in others. But her agreeable stage presence and rapport with the audience turns this informality into an advantage ... In contrast, John Augustine’s Death By Chocolate is not engagingly raw, but merely half-baked.

New York Post C
(Frank Scheck) Neil LaBute's new play is aptly, if not entirely accurately, titled. His "A Second of Pleasure," part of the "Summer Shorts 3" series at the 59E59 Theaters, actually provides about 15 minutes of pleasure in what is otherwise a choppy evening of one-act plays. "Things My Afro Taught Me" is a comic monologue in which writer/performer Nancy Giles describes her struggles with her unruly hair. Despite Giles' engaging personality, the rambling piece doesn't add up to much. The other efforts are similarly underwhelming.

TheatreMania C
(Dan Bacalzo) Neil LaBute has explored the often charged power dynamics between men and women in several of his works, including his recent Tony Award-nominated play, reasons to be pretty. His excellent new piece, "A Second of Pleasure," which continues this theme, is the clear stand-out ... The two actors, under the surehanded direction of stage and screen star Andrew McCarthy, deliver nuanced performances that track the twists and turns of the characters' emotional journey all the way through to the play's quietly devastating conclusion. The remaining three works on the bill are nowhere near as effective. Nancy Giles' solo piece, "Things My Afro Taught Me," is an identity-based autobiographical story about one African-American woman's experience with trying to tame her unruly hair. Giles is an engaging performer and shares a few funny anecdotes, but the piece follows a too predictable arc. John Augustine's "Death by Chocolate" is a puzzling mess of a play that just goes on and on without saying anything of merit. The evening ends on a strained note with Skip Kennon and Bill Connington's mini-musical, "The Eternal Anniversary."

New York Times C-
(Ken Jaworowski) The first offering, “Things My Afro Taught Me,” is Nancy Giles’s tale of her lifelong battle with troublesome hair. More a stand-up routine than a traditional play, it rests on Ms. Giles’s charm, and succeeds. While “Afro” is friendly and watchable, the next, John Augustine’s “Death by Chocolate,” is manic and unfocused. Other than complaining or screaming, none of the characters care much about anything, leading the viewer to adopt a similar attitude toward the play. You may wonder if Neil LaBute’s “Second of Pleasure,” the third offering, is as compelling as it seems, or if it gleams mostly because of the dull pieces before and after it. No matter — don’t examine the dental work of a gift horse. It’s a minimalist setup with plenty of dark delights, among them Margaret Colin and Victor Slezak, who are pitch perfect as the embattled couple. One longs to praise a one-act musical, but with “The Eternal Anniversary” there is little to extol beyond the effort. Besides the uneven choice of works, Summer Shorts sabotages itself with an ill-conceived set design that fosters long, clumsy scene changes.

Time Out New York D+
(Helen Shaw) Reporting frankly on the knee-high playlets in Series A of J.J. Kandel and John McCormack’s two-part Summer Shorts festival feels perilously close to bullying; you shouldn’t pick on the little guy ... The night starts with a mild pleasure: Nancy Giles gets laughs for her solo Things My Afro Taught Me, a structurally clumsy portrait of the African-American woman’s relationship with her hair ... Throughout, she regards her trials with a wry eye—a fortitude that we need for the subsequent Death by Chocolate, John Augustine’s stunningly unfunny farce ... Of the four, only Neil LaBute’s sketch A Second of Pleasure adequately exploits the form ... The piece fulfills the promise of its title, but its arch sadness soon gives way to the unintentionally hilarious The Eternal Anniversary, a gothic mini musical by Skip Kennon (tunes) and Bill Connington (book).

The Village Voice D
(Jacob Gallagher-Ross) Things My Afro Taught Me is exactly what it sounds like: The author-performer combs autobiography out of coiffure, detailing her misadventures with styling products, her resentment of co-workers with tractable locks, and her childhood envy of celebrity manes. The enriching lesson learned? Life, like an unruly hairstyle, can occasionally be difficult to manage ... It's debatable whether John Augustine's sitcom-inflected farce Death by Chocolate is an exercise in misogyny or crotchety angst—either way, it's deadly theater ... Neil LaBute's A Second of Pleasure provides respite ... With The Eternal Anniversary, the evening ends on a note of pseudo-Gothic camp. In this micro-musical by Skip Kennon and Bill Connington, a penitent wife-killer prepares a sumptuous feast for his spouse's ghost. The pair croons culinary doggerel en route to a loopy liebestod—Edgar Allan Poe meets Andrew Lloyd Webber—that collapses under its own bathos like a mistimed soufflĂ©. By turns cloying and curdled, Summer Shorts' sampler plate leaves an unpleasant aftertaste.

Variety B+ 11; CurtainUp B 10; Backstage B 10; Show Business Weekly B 10; New York Post C 7; TheatreMania C 7; New York Times C- 6; Time Out New York D+ 5; Village Voice D 4. TOTAL: 70/9 = 7.78 (C+)

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