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Better than prime time players: the cast of StageWorks’ Play by Play.

Material Issues
By James Yeara

Play by Play
By Carey Lovelace, Gary Garrison, Michael T. Folie, Andrew Joffee, Lucile Lichtblau, Eric Sanders, Katherine Ambrosio, Joan Minieri, Daniel Ho, Fred Sahner and James Farrell; directed by Samuel Buggeln and Tom Butler

StageWorks, North Pointe Cultural Arts Center.

I’m usually a whore for StageWorks’ spring one-act play festival, previously titled Ten by Ten. When it comes to this eclectic collection, my critical standards get drunk and I become like one of those ad-copy reviewers who likes everything everywhere. From its inception, StageWorks’ annual collection of one-acts was like a lite version of the annual Louisville Actors’ Humana Festival; that avant-garde Southern festival is an eagerly anticipated theater orgy, and StageWorks’ was a tamer version, but one that was still bolder than anything else in the Capital Region. The 10 one-acts, centered on a theme (the Purple Plays, the Body Plays, the Black-and-White Plays, etc.), and were often some of the best and riskiest theater in the area. Ten by Ten was theater to fall head over heels with.

Unfortunately, sometimes you’re better off going home alone from the bar, and this year was one of those sometimes.

This year’s version of Ten by Ten, called Play by Play, had no centering theme and instead seemed to be contaminated by television. The 11 one-acts, lasting almost three hours, were like one of those bankrupt-for-ideas compilation “specials.” Too many of the plays seemed inspired more by old “must-see TV” than by live theater—or, better yet, living people. There was a Seinfeld play; an Alice play; an ER play (with an interesting quirk on language that was sacrificed on the altar of the facile); a surreal-riff-on-The Bob Newhart Show play (set in an Upstate county clerk’s office, it was one of only three plays worth seeing again of the 11); a Friends-meets-Everybody Loves Raymond funny bit on a young married couple in bed communicating by miscommunicating; a Touched by an Angel piece featuring Ground Zero, the legal rights (or lack thereof) of a bereaved gay lover and the dead lover’s mother, who suddenly has Alzheimer’s disease (the phoniest, most contrived and insulting collection of words I hope ever to have to suffer through in a theater); and a two-character piece that was a cross between the South African playwright Athol Fugard and Nightline (more a staged reading of a court transcript than drama).

The best-of-show award went to Lessons From a Master, which took its inspiration from David Ives’ love of language and the absurd: A baby, dressed in a bunny outfit with a “Feed Me” note pinned to it, left on the doorstep of an Italian restaurant in New Jersey, grows up to track down her mother at the Easy Rider Trailer Park in the Florida 25 years later; they bond over scrutinized gerunds, exploding clichés, and slurped beer.

The saving graces of Play by Play are the direction and the acting. Samuel Buggeln and Tom Butler give the 11 uneven pieces a flow and unity they don’t earn through their dramaturgy; the best bit of staging is a curtain-call relay of props between characters. Initially, it didn’t register with the audience as a curtain call, but it had a wonderful connection between cast and characters that the plays usually didn’t create.

The directors themselves were well-served by the six-person Actors Equity cast, who worked mightily on material as thin as Ally McBeal’s thigh. Of particular note was Eileen Schuyler, who shone in the half-dozen roles that she played. (In one play, she showed that an experienced actress can lay some heavy liplock on even the most unlikely of men and make a stage kiss so believable that love is almost possible.) Schuyler came close to single-handedly reviving the magic that was Ten by Ten. I hope that next year, StageWorks ditches the selection committee so that they can go back to channel surfing, leaving the theater free to revive some of the better plays of the past six years, sort of the Best of the Best. That’s a theme worth seeing.

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