The annual Play by Play festival of new one-act plays at Stageworks/Hudson always has something to please almost everyone, and this year the eight one-acts, the performances, and the staging are uniformly excellent. Play by Play: Rendezvous is one of the best collections in the 16-year history of this once-a-year event. Centering mostly on two-character scenes, it’s a theater buffet that should not be missed.
The plays, each between 10 and 15 minutes long, have contemporary settings this year (something unusual for this series), and their appeal is broad. Their brevity is their soul, and the staging keeps the pace quick but never harried or hurried.
The four actors—Claire Epstein, Steven Patterson, Louise Pillai, and Christopher Smith—are uniformly fine in creating a homeless man on a train or on a street corner, a scholar arguing the merits of prostitution, a worried job-seeker, a would-be lover, or the variety of lonely hearts brought to life with very exact and believable accents and needs. Unlike previous years, there’s nary a dead moment or performance in the two-hour collection.
Though each of the eight one-acts offer something, three stood out for me. Lonely Hearts Ventura by Kieron Barry, supposedly inspired by Craigslist personals from Ventura, Calif., was the only play to feature all four performers and they created an aural love poem. The staging was crisp and fresh. Lonely Hearts Ventura is reason enough to see Rendezvous: It’s funny and surprisingly touching. It was staged by John Sowle, who also did the minimal sets and the protean lighting design for the entire show; his aesthetic conceit aided the play instead of smothering it.
The Act 2 opener, Grave Shopping With Mama by Zach Udko, was at times hysterical and ultimately frighteningly hellish. Udko, whose The Claw of the Schwa was one of the hits of last year’s festival, centers on a mama from hell and her son in a surreal tale that plays like Woody Allen adapting Edgar Allan Poe. Sowle also directed this one, and the use of the rectangular transparent coffin is sprightly as it is frightening.
The last of the Rendezvous’ eight is Charles Lark’s Ask Me! Tell Me!, which centers on the first in-person meeting of Jamie (well played by Smith), a college student who corresponded as part of a class project with a G.I. fighting in Iraq/Afghanistan, and did it so well that the returning soldier fell in love with him. Unfortunately, “Jamie” is a name easily given to misprision, and Jamie frets with his lesbian BFF Charlie (well played by Claire Epstein) about his situation. First to figure out the solution to the misprision gets the laugh before the rest of the audience. It’s a smart little turn that sums up this year’s Play by Play well.