Alan Arkin and Elaine May have their powerful hands all over “Power Plays,” a trio of one-acts currently showing at Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre. They wrote the scripts; Arkin directed; they both star. They even “authored” their supporting cast: Arkin’s son Anthony and May’s daughter Jeannie Berlin appear in featured roles, often stealing the show from their elders.
The first of the one-acts, “The Way of All Fish,” was written by May as a comic duet for herself and her daughter. It eavesdrops on a flighty Manhattan businesswoman (May) and her repressed secretary (Berlin) as they get to know each other over dinner. By the end of the meal, it is clear that neither is exactly whom the other thought her to be.
Arkin’s “Virtual Reality” also centers on a confrontation between two near-strangers — in this case it’s two criminals or operatives (it’s never explained which) played by the Arkins. The two men meet, warily, in a warehouse to rehearse their shady mission, each vying for the upper hand. Slowly, their “rehearsal” becomes strangely real, and more and more lethal.
“The Way of All Fish” and “Virtual Reality” work well as companion pieces. They both veer from the comic to the macabre and back again, and they both pit two characters against each other in a constantly shifting “power play.” May’s might be written with a little more finesse, but Arkin’s benefits from the double dose of aggressive Arkin energy onstage. It is a joy to see father and son jousting, both in their prime.
The evening takes a bit of a left turn after intermission, then, when all four actors join forces onstage for an all-out farce, written by May, called “In and Out of the Light, or Dr. Kesselman’s End.” This piece leaves the politics of partnerships behind to milk the comic potential from one haywire afternoon at a New York dentist’s office.
Alan Arkin plays an aging, married dentist who has the hots for his blond bimbo assistant (May). As they are about to arrange a tryst, they are unexpectedly visited by the dentist’s angst-ridden son (Anthony Arkin) and a neurotic patient (Berlin). The farce works up to a giddy pitch about three-quarters of the way through, as the son and the patient trade panic attacks in the dentist’s chair. Anthony Arkin and Berlin are so convincingly crazy at this point, one starts to wonder where the piece can go next. Not too far, it turns out, as the play fizzles to its end.
While “In and Out of the Light” generates the most laughs of the three short plays, it’s ultimately not as satisfying as the first two. Some of its T&A jokes are so dated they are almost quaint, and its setting lacks the odd, off-kilter dimension of the first two.
The play begins previews at New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club in mid-April.