Written by Murray Schisgal; directed by Lee Costello.
Theater both lively and mundane can result from characters taking stock of their long, or, in some sad cases, not-so-long lives. “Marathon ’94,” the 17th annual festival of one-act plays produced by the Ensemble Studio Theater, mostly proves the liveliness of stock-taking with its first four entries.
The oddest of the quartet is also the most unsettling and presented as the marathon’s opener. Murray Schisgal’s “Extensions” has two down-on-their-luck vaudeville hoofers, husband-and-wife team Bob and Betsy (Peter Maloney, Marcia Jean Kurtz), sitting in a barely furnished room playing cards, waiting for their phone to ring and getting on each other’s nerves as they wistfully reminisce about their past success. “We used to know thousands of people,” sighs Betsy, “literally and actually thousands of people.”
Lest anyone mistake the goings-on for real life, Schisgal has the duo in vaudeville-period dress, although the time is the present and the phone has push-buttons. The phone, in fact, might as well be a third character, so sinister is its presence. While it sits silent during the first half of the play , as Bob and Betsy recall the names of agents, friends and family whom they haven’t heard from in years, the phone ultimately becomes an instrument of terror as it begins to ring with endless calls from the very people they’ve missed. They are bombarded with news both happy and tragic until they stand, clutching one another in fear, as the phone rings out the play.
Certainly there’s an existential obviousness about “Extensions,” and Schisgal doesn’t seem to be breaking new ground here. The play might be about the mixed blessing of dreams attained, or perhaps it’s simply a condensed picture of a marriage, with all the humor and horror of a lifetime packed into one nightmarish evening. However one interprets “Extensions,” the final image of the two fearful clowns holding each other tight will linger.
Also affecting is “The Falling Man,” Will Scheffer’s account and portrayal of a young man — a former cha-cha champion — recalling his former glory as he dies of AIDS. Essentially a one-man show (a silent “man in black” serves as both a dance partner and nurse), “The Falling Man” displays Scheffer’s humor and unguarded charm as the character recalls his dancing prowess, falling in love and, ultimately, the fear of oblivion.
Perhaps this type of testimonial, tinged with camp humor, is a tad familiar, but Scheffer’s admonition to “remember my cha-cha, remember my voice, remember me” is both heartfelt and quirky enough to ensure we do.
The most conventional of the four plays is Herb Gardner’s “I’m With Ya, Duke.” Sam Margolis (David Margulies) is standard Gardner Everycrank, a 75 -year-old Jewish man hospitalized after a heart attack. “I’ve been here a week,” he tells the nurse over an intercom. “One more week and they’ll name a pavilion after me.”
Amid the wisecracks and cantankerous grumbling, the old man tries to convince his young doctor (Jack Koenig) that he doesn’t want the bypass surgery that will save his life. “These times ain’t my time,” says the old man, regaling the uninterested doctor with memories of the Brooklyn Dodgers (he wears an old Dodgers cap in bed, naturally).
Margolis’ abrupt about-face in favor of the operation robs the play of dramatic tension, leaving “I’m With Ya, Duke” little more than a familiar, ingratiating character in search of a play. Director Jack Gelber’s straightforward direction and a charming performance from Margulies serves the work well.
“Paradise,” Romulus Linney’s four-character comedy, is perhaps the most ambitious and unfocused of the quartet. Dudley (David Eigenberg), a shy college student, is visiting the Miami home of his Aunt Jean (Lois Smith), an alcoholic since the long-ago death of her young son.
While there, Dudley studies Dante, meets and beds a promiscuous neighbor, Angelina (Sheri Matteo), and commiserates with cousin Linda (Gretchen Walther) over the recent death of her father. Most of this occurs during the final scene, when aunt and cousin join Dudley and Angelina in bed for a drunken slumber party in which souls are bared and wrongs righted.
Much is made of comparisons to Dante’s “Inferno,” with each character stranded in some sort of purgatory. The contrived happy ending would seem a put-on if there was even a hint of irony attached.
As with the rest of the plays, “Paradise” boasts good acting and modest but suitable tech credits. Nine more plays by John Guare, Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang, among others, are scheduled in two more series over the next month. The first series, however uneven, is a promising start.