After a weekend spent in the Mid-Hudson Valley sunshine, I headed back into the city Sunday night to check out the Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival over at The Lion on Theater Row. While I was, of course, interested in seeing the plays and critiquing the performances, mostly I wanted to find out what it was that the people at Samuel French think made something the best of roughly 1,000 entries. These are people who know their drama, I figured: they’ve been publishing since 1830. At the very least, seeing the plays they chose for inclusion in their yearly publication would be educational.
The day was split into sections, and each section brought three or four of the short plays to the stage. I attended the final session, and the four plays I saw were FAN BOY by Megan Sass, A MAP OF OUR COUNTRY by Andrew Kramer, DANCE LESSONS by Josh Koenigsberg and THE BEAR (A TRAGEDY) by EJC Calvert.
First there was FAN BOY, a play about a man with a secret identity. It was funny and entertaining, but completely unsuited to stage; this is a piece that would be racking up major views if it were available online, thanks to its built-in audience of comic and sci-fi fans who are able, as smash hit THE BIG BANG THEORY proves, to laugh at ourselves. Moreover, FAN BOY on film would allow the audience to appreciate more fully the struggle the protagonist goes through as he tries not to let his temper get out of control over the course of his live-in-assistant’s interrogation and flirtatious condemnation of his lifestyle choices and favorite comic book heroes.
Next, A MAP OF OUR COUNTRY, which looks at a Palestinian couple torn apart by war and prejudice. Set in Palestine and featuring gentle, specific performances, this piece about two Palestinian lovers – one living, one convinced he is about to die – gathered intensity slowly and falteringly. In the end, while the writing was strong, this is a play that needed more variation in pace and pitch in order to truly compel. If properly developed, this play could become a stunning full-length piece that examined love, religion, masculinity and the brutalized youth of war-torn countries
After that, DANCE LESSONS, with bleak humor and endearing honesty in its portrayal of a small-town waitress and the short-order cook who has a crush on her. Unlike A MAP OF OUR COUNTRY, which seemed too short a play to tackle such large subjects in a way that granted real satisfaction, DANCE LESSONS was an appropriate size for its theme, and the punchy jokes and witty crafting of this work, as well as the physical theatricality of Koenigsberg’s writing. Perhaps no moment among these plays was quite so endearing as the one where his short-order cook clears the floor and performs an intricate modern dance routine.
Finally, reanimating the corpse of Christopher Durang, THE BEAR (A TRAGEDY) was funny, but relied heavily on the staging and performances to communicate its message. I’d like to see a copy of the script, since it can be hard to figure out whether the resulting production was a result of the script or the direction. It was certainly funny, but twenty-four hours after seeing it produced, I’m not sure that my life was changed or improved by seeing it. Along with DANCE LESSONS, though, THE BEAR (A TRAGEDY) was one of the winning scripts of the evening.
What I can say is that both THE BEAR (A TRAGEDY) and DANCE LESSONS provide ample material for drama students, theater companies, and college professors trying to teach their students what sells. I can’t speak for the other plays that won, but these two were easy-to-swallow and skillfully constructed, if creaking with occasion lags in pace. Not only do I imagine they’d be fun to produce and perform, but they don’t ask much of their audience members except that they sit back and enjoy the ride.
My overall impression of the Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival? Worth going to if you’re looking for some interesting pieces to think about, and the production values – particularly among the performers – are high. These are short, cerebral, progressive plays that will be well received by wide audiences, and by seeing the finals then watching out for who wins, budding writers will get an idea of what kinds of pieces the publisher might be seeking as winners in the future.