The signature moment of this 17th annual festival of new one-act plays occurs appropriately between plays: After the opening play ends with its three characters watching an It’s a Wonderful Life-worthy snowfall, there’s a blackout. The lights then return to a dusky glow; the stage is cleared of three chairs, swept of snowflakes, and a new chair is placed midstage left and a gold pedestal placed roughly downstage center. But just before the pedestal has its center-stage corners lowered, the stagehand very carefully picks up, with his left index finger and thumb, three errant snowflakes. The pedestal is then finally lowered in place, the three errant but uncrushed flakes carried offstage right, as some new-age tubular music continues playing while the lights dim slowly but eventually to darkness.
Those who in the past 16 years might have found the Play by Play festival too wild, too raucous, too uninhibited, will be pleased by this year’s very pristine, practiced, pleasant, and perfectly-in-control production. Nothing is errant here. Nothing is left to chance. Nothing startles. The seven one-acts are placidly paced, doled out with quaintly timed and exactly enacted silent prologues and epilogues so one can admire the stagecraft of the stagehands placing props with the practiced art of an experienced Downton Abbey footman or chambermaid. Play by Play: Unchained seems to be ironically titled, but the production would not be out of place in the more staid, stately playhouses of the Berkshires.
Kieron Barry, playwright star of StageWorks/Hudson last season, offers <em>The Comfort of Your Own Home</em>, a set of interwoven monologues presented by three characters, which ends with a notably nice snowfall and the observation of the character titled “B” (Suzy Kimball): “We know the part is over when those over 50 women show up talking loudly about <em>Menopause: the Musical</em> . . . with Dan Brown’s latest on their Kindle, get into their Prius with NPR on the Radio on the way to valet parking for the David Sedaris performance.” It’s an ironic piece that bites the audience that feeds it, but the observation is much like a movie trailer that reveals the only engaging minute of a two-hour movie.</p>
The second play is a sprightly Perspective by James McLindon, set in the Louvre, where a painting of the Archangel Gabriel (Buzz Roddy) and the Madonna (Suzy Kimball) come to life when placed across from the more popular Mona Lisa. The play’s conceit is part Night in the Museum, part Harry Potter, the figures metaphorically full of piss and vinegar, too, revealing allure of Mona’s smile and the Mary’s jealousy at her gallerymate’s prominence. The one-act’s 12 minutes fly by due both to its whimsy and the imaginative, full-bodied performances by Roddy and Kimball. Perspective would have fit in with previous Play by Play festivals, instead of being, here, the lone highlight.
Of the timid and confined others, the post-intermission opener As You Loathe It by Cathy Tempelsman has the same quirky spirit of Perspective, only the focus is on a different art form: theater. William Shakespeare (Buzz Roddy) and Christopher Marlowe (Cliff Miller) rise from their marble slabs to argue in doggerel rhyme about their postmortem reputations, productions, and who influenced and/or stole from whom, all in Elizabethan dress (excellent costumes here by George Veale) and with bated verbal rapiers: “A modern critic?/What does he know?/Your Merchant played Broadway/starring Pacino.” When John Webster (Kathryn Danielle) rises literally from deep below (via trap door), the dueling playwrights becomes a ménage a trio egos.
Deflating by Hal Corley features a unique premise and protagonist, but when the protagonist’s life-altering event turns out to be sharing a joint with a 13-year-old, the play itself loses what air it had. Play by Play: Unchained is pleasant fun—harmless, polite, and well-staged with great rear screen projections—but is ultimately chained to a limited palate, safer and tidier choices.