Festivals like this give aspiring playwrights and actors a chance to use their muscles and get a piece on its feet. The audience, except for friends and relatives, takes a risk in the name of supporting theater. This afternoon I saw four short one-acts, only one of which was, to my mind, successful.
The Early Bird Special by John J. Ronan
Directed by Dennis W. Gleason
Jennie (Ree Davis) and Frank (Paul J. Caliendo) have been happily married 42 years. She’s a doctor, he’s a writer- on marriage. “I couldn’t make it as a poet, so I turned to love.” They wave goodbye to family after a blow-out anniversary dinner. Conversation is sweet, easy. Jennie has Cancer, Frank suffers early Alzheimer’s. They care for one another with tenderness and humor.
In one car (side by side chairs), driving home, we meet their son Dennis (Kalen Hall), also a writer, and his wife, Laura (Ashley Victoria Harris), a divorce lawyer. They talk about the gathering. Dennis is concerned his folks will need help. His spouse envies Jennie and Frank. “Not yet,” she responds. Dennis has had multiple affairs. They bicker.
In a second car, we watch younger daughter Gale (Katherine Paulsen) and her coke-snorting, long-haired husband Jack (Zachary Tuckness). Gale works with troubled teens. Her salary appears to be their only income. (What does he do or want to do?) She disapproves of the drugs. Jack wants to ask the old folks for money.
We move from couple to couple gradually learning a smattering about each of the sibling’s relationships, and that- spoiler alert- Jennie and Frank have just said goodbye to their kids. Before the black-out, both cars turn around.
The piece is original and tightly written. I could imagine it turning into something longer with character development, but it works fine as it is. Each generation sounds like itself; each character is, if sketchily, defined and credible. Frank’s malaprops and hesitation are well written. There are some delicious lines. Pacing is good. Revelations appear like peeling an onion.
Direction is deft. Use of the song “Save the Last Dance For Me” is inspired.
Paul Caliendo and Ree Davis are palpably genteel and warm, both actors showing their experience as well as the couple’s history. Ashley Victoria Harris is appropriately terse, yet not one dimensional. Katherine Paulsen feels appealingly grounded.
Blackberry Winter– Written and Directed by Kai Elijah Hamilton
Mr. Hamilton must have the rest of this story in his head, because what’s on the stage is inexplicable. Carolina (Nickengie A. Sampson, unintelligible half the time) appears to have lost her 4 year-old son 5 years ago, an unexplained disappearance for which she blames herself. Angry and agonized, she continues to look for him. We’re now in an abandoned house where she’s sure he was held and tortured. Her sister Yvonne (Gaysha Snipes), the voice of reason, is visiting and attempts to calm her. Carolina insists they call the police. (Kai Elijah Hamilton) The room looks just like one she dreamed. The women think they’ve found her son’s cap.
Suddenly we’re in an asylum. Carolina is unhinged. Her son is alive and living with Yvonne. What?! While the idea is fine, the play is top heavy without explaining under what circumstances its heroine is incarcerated.
Direction is sloppy and as poorly illuminated as narrative. Why does the leading lady spend so much time with her eyes closed? Why is there no blood on the set if Carolina sees blood-even in her imagination? Why do Yvonne and the doctor circle Carolina again and again? Why does medical staff put on surgical masks? What’s the truth?
Of the cast, Gaysha Snipes appears to deserve better.
Reality Sucks by Sonia Cordoves
Directed by Stephanie Sandoval
Except for the reveal, this entire play has been done a dozen times and better. Roxy (Vanessa Elise) meets her Match.com date Rob (Charles Sothers) in a restaurant. Neither is anything like either their pictures (cleverly shown to the audience on cell phones) or their flamboyant profiles. Both are pissed off.
Roxy’s ex-boyfriend Frank (Daniel Gil) wanders in (wearing one of the worst wigs I’ve ever seen) and is briefly obnoxious as well as totally unbelievable. He kisses Rob on the forehead before exiting?! Peter (Daniel Gil) meets his Match.com date Sacha (Sonia Cordoves). They don’t look disappointed. Then, the punchline.
Direction is yeoman-like, best when the couple are alone. Vanessa Elise emerges viable, though Charles Sothers might have a shot without that awful cartoon voice.
Family Googling by Mark D. Tjarks
Directed by Dennis W. Gleason
Here, instead of only a punchline, we have only a premise: that disconcerting personal information and images can be found online with ease and alacrity. Jacqueline’s (Danielle Adams) gay, teenage daughter Becca (Ashley R. Brown) will not take her nose out of her smart phone. Jacqueline’s partner, Frank (Preston Fritz Smith), tolerates it, but it drives mom crazy. This evening, they’ve invited friend Maddie (Geraldine Dulex) to dinner , perhaps, it’s suggested, because she’s also gay. In the course of meal preparation, Becca manages to find an ex-love, a first love, and a missing father. Conversation, however is pedestrian.
This could have been executed with drama or humor and has neither.
Direction is realistic, if unimaginative. The most natural actor onstage is Geraldine Dulex.
“Nicknamed “The American Idol for playwrights,” the Strawberry One-Act Festival has been presenting New York premieres and world premieres of short theatrical works submitted for competition from across the country. Since 1995, it has produced over 1,500 one-act plays. Reflecting the diversity written into the mission of its presenter, the Strawberry One-Act and Theater Festival features plays that vary in length (from 15 to 90 minutes) and deal with wide array of topics…”
Photos: The Earlybird Special: Paul Caliendo and Ree Davis photo by Dennis Gleason
Blackberry Winter: Gaysha Snipes, Kai Elijah Hamilton, and Nickengie A. Sampson by Van Dirk Fisher
Reality Sucks: Charles Sothers, Vanessa Elise by Van Dirk Fisher
Family Googling: Geraldine Dulex, Preston Fritz Smith, Danielle Adams, front- Ashley R. Brown by Van Dirk Fisher
July 16, 2016
The Strawberry One-Act Theatre Festival
Through July 31 at the Theatre at St. Clement’s
423 West 46th Street