Short-play fests are mixed bags by nature, but despite scoring enough commercial success to warrant an extended run, Cherry Lane’s “Vengeance” is more mixed than most, with five one-acts that range from amateurish to completely riveting. Cast members David Wilson Barnes and Lisa Joyce add depth and texture to the proceedings, particularly when co-starring in the last and best piece, Neena Beber’s “Specter.”
From the start, it’s both hard to watch “Vengeance” and hard to look away. As the first play, “Squalor,” begins, we’re suddenly involved in a sting operation that targets child molesters online, and the pull of Gina Gionfriddo’s clever dialogue drags us kicking and screaming into a world of evil people doing evil things.
It’s not an altogether pleasant experience, but it certainly doesn’t let your mind wander. “Squalor” has a kernel of humanity that distinguishes it from some of its genre competitors — the troubled Mike (David Ross) has some real, sympathetic problems that give his character the ability to transcend the voyeuristic “ewww” factor.
Francine Volpe’s “Giftbox” and Julian Sheppard’s “Skin & Bones” suggest the amazing things that actress Joyce can do without really giving her a chance to do them (both scripts lack a basic theatricality). After the fitfully funny “Rats,” though, Joyce, Barnes and Beber land the evening’s bull’s-eye.
Though much of “Specter” is undoubtedly hyperbole, there’s something innately dramatic about the myth of the crazy and brilliant record producer who has long taken full advantage of his Second Amendment rights. Beber’s play renders a character with a more than casual resemblance to Phil Spector (Barnes) and the ghost of his victim, an actress named Lana (Joyce), who wants to make it big, but doesn’t want to sleep with Phil.
Up to this point, the plays have all felt like work extrapolated from the writers own lives (or from other work). The truth in “Squalor” seems born of a personal understanding of loneliness; the sister-to-sister debate in “Giftbox” sounds closely observed.
“Specter,” on the other hand, is undiluted fantasy. It’s worth noting how hard it is to do this sort of thing on the stage, and how necessary. Since the immediacy of the theater discourages us from chasing our actors across alien landscapes with giant monsters, there are other wonderful things that a writer can do with direct address and timing to insinuate that the barely imagined things (here, the dead) are close by.
The physical proximity of theater performers to the audience can heighten and sweeten this, especially if they’re as talented at mimicry as Barnes, and as emotionally naked as Joyce. Beber briefly frees Lana from Phil and stretches those seconds into minutes to allow the woman to look out at the audience and explain herself to us. Her death is the same, but she gets there by a different road.
Watching this surreal rerouting puts us in a strange place between the mind and the real world — a place where we can inhabit art.