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Losing theme: Robertson Carricat and Kirk McGee in Play by Play.

Only Connect
By James Yeara

Play by Play: Then and Now
Directed by Laura Margolis and Samuel Buggein

StageWorks, through May 11

StageWorks’ annual opening production of one-act plays, Play by Play, is still the most adventurous, riskiest theater in the region. In the past, when the new 10-minute plays revolved around a theme—the Body Plays, the Black and White Plays, the Purple Plays—the productions were an electric, eclectic delight. Even the occasional duds held interest when juxtaposed against the others in the collection. At its best, the Play by Play format was theater for the buffet lover or for the A.D.D. crowd. One-acts that were laser-focused on a theme or a character or a relationship or an image created some of the region’s most thoughtful yet entertaining theater.

I concluded last year’s review of StageWorks’ nameless collection of one-act plays with a hope that “StageWorks can revive some of the better plays of the past six years, sort of the Best of the Best.” I’ve just learned to be careful what I hope for.

The 11 plays presented this year in Play by Play: Then and Now suffer from the same lack of focus as last year’s collection. Then and Now really isn’t a best-of collection of previous one-acts: It’s simply nine one-acts from playwrights who’ve had at least two plays produced at StageWorks during the previous six seasons. And that’s not the stuff great theater is made on.

The two new plays offer little: New Arts Policy is a nice one-joke idea— federally endowed ballets must now have professional-wrestling or NASCAR tie-ins—stretched through some contortions to 10 minutes; Do You Dance is a sentimental tale about lonely senior citizens connecting around “it’s a small world after all” coincidences. If these were Then and Now’s only faults, this could still be great theater. Unfortunately, the returning plays aren’t greater than the sum of their parts, and the lack of a unifying theme or exploration or element renders a potentially great idea a lackluster event. Simply put, the selected plays are not the strongest of the previous six years.

Three do stand out: Monica Before and After from last year, Silent Treatment from 2000’s Black and White Plays, and Off Hand from 2001’s Body Plays are worth revisiting. Each features strong characters—an artist model, a mother saving her son from a life of mime, and a resigned painter, respectively—and each connects with art’s power to transform: Monica shows the artist’s overweight model’s (Nan Mullenneaux) true beauty; Silent connects a nagging mother (Eileen Schuyler) to her wanna-be mime son (Kirk McGee); and Hand features a man (McGee) who woos an older woman (Mullenneaux) through his painting. Though different in tone, plot and characterization, the three plays share a theme that the other eight plays don’t. Though taken from three different years, this unifying element creates some sparks between these three one-acts—sparks sadly missing in the others.

The two directors do spark some interest by repeating last year’s staging device: an excellent ending tableau of actors re-creating a key image that sums up one of the 11 plays. But to save the unifying element until the end is a poor substitute for what should constitute the heart of the preproduction meetings.

When created like a good variety or vaudeville show—i.e., by crafting the acts around a theme and sequencing them around the effect each creates—the Play by Play structure yields stellar results. Here’s hoping that next year’s Play by Play production begins with connection, rather than tacking it on as an afterthought.

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