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No longer alone: (l-r) Epstein and Randolph in Play by Play: Blue Moons.

Photo: Dan Udell

Singular Sensation

By James Yeara

Play by Play: Blue Moons

Seven one-act plays written by Daniel Talbott, Fred Sahner, David Zellnik, Romulus Linney, Ellen Margolis, Steve Schmitt, Alan Gelb; directed by John Sowle and Laura Margolis

Stageworks/Hudson, through Oct. 10

Seven plays plus four actors times 16 characters equals 90 minutes of excellent theater. This year’s theme for Stageworks/Hudson’s annual Play by Play festival of new one-acts is Blue Moons, an eclectic mix of the kind of theater this Hudson troupe does best: short new works that offer something for everyone. Following the template that has worked so well in previous years, Blue Moons loosely ties seven plays around a general theme—a once-in-a-lifetime event—featuring a play on historical figures, a contemporary fantasia, plays on marital woes, and a funny yet poignant play on family. This is always one of the bravest and best theatrical events of the year, and the addition this year of virtuoso actors Jonathan Epstein and Tod Randolph makes Blue Moons not just a rarity but a wonder.

The first half of Blue Moons comprises four plays, and it’s the one of the strongest mixes in Play by Play’s 14-year history. At opening, Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” plays in the darkness, until the first image of Daniel Talbott’s Sometimes After Dinner causes the audience to titter: A middle-aged Guy (Epstein) sits on a park bench next to a Girl (Lauren Murphy). A large urn of sunflowers rests centerstage. Guy is naked save for his black socks and the black boombox snugly resting on his lap, as if this were King Lear’s midlife crisis. Girl is wearing glasses and a black cardigan over a blood-red blouse, her hair in a tight top bun. The pair listens to the psychedelic refrain, “When the Hurdy Gurdy Man/Comes singing songs of love/Hurdy gurdy, gurdy, hurdy gurdy gurdy he sang,” each perched on the bench like a fierce bird of prey ignoring a quivering mouse next to him. Farce easily leaps to mind, but what unfolds is a funny but affecting series of non sequiturs between two strangers dealing with loss. Paired with a discreet nod downward, Guy’s revelation, “Left my wife tonight at dinner . . . left everything,” earns laughs, which are soon topped by Girl’s “I was with a guy once who fucked me for Dodger tickets.” It’s a leap, and seems cheap, but Epstein and Murphy are so focused, so tight, and so connected to the spare outlines of characters that their lines take on a recognizable human ache: “The older I get, the further away I get from myself,” Guy states, leaning back firmly into the bench. His offhand statement of incredulity at being three hours naked on the bench without anyone noticing is soon met by Girl’s equally offhand response that “my dad died yesterday.” The ache of loss weaves the two together.

The next two plays—Final Moments by Fred Sahner, about middle-aged and newly widowed Doris Hurley’s (a pristine Randolph) funny and biting farewell to husband’s ashes, and David Zellnik’s Mohammed and the Sleeping Cat, a verbal pas de deux between Max (Epstein) and his present boy-toy, Jonah (a game Dan Fenaughty)—continue the unlikely couplings over loss. The breezy entr’acte music, Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” sets up Final Moments’ mordant humor well, and Randolph’s performance as the edgy, boozy, blonde Doris is complex enough to overcome the sitcomish mistaking of urns. She renders the concluding epigram, “Marriage is harder than teaching ducks to dance,” with humane grace. Epstein and Fenaughty create believable May-December lovers, appropriately compared to the prophet’s indulgence of his beloved cat, and Epstein’s restrained acting is a wonder to behold, as it never uncoils.

Romulus Linney’s Two Whores—a poopdeck meeting between Sarah Bernhardt (Murphy) and Mary Todd Lincoln (Randolph)—follows Play by Play’s precedent of including a one-act centered on an imagined historical meeting. The unlikely encounter centers around being a woman and being a whore, and includes the singular moment of Mrs. Lincoln recalling the bit of her husband’s brain landing on her left hand, accompanied by the scene- closing strains of “Beautiful Dreamer.”

Alan Gelb’s Processional ends Blue Moons with the only full-cast play, and, as with the better plays here, centers on believable relationships simultaneously celebrating and mourning loss. Divorced Michael (Epstein) and Claire (Randolph) reunite to celebrate their son’s graduation from Brown University. The pair create a couple whose attraction is as believable as the reasons that they split. Full of laughs and edged with ache, Processional makes a fitting valedictory to the excellence of Stageworks/Hudson’s Play by Play: Blue Moons.

 


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