Last year looked like the end of the Ensemble Studio Theater’s annual marathon of one-act plays: EST artistic director Curt Dempster had just died, the series had been cut from three evenings to an anemic two, and each lineup had been averaging just one memorable play out of five.
So it’s a welcome surprise to see the return, not only of the EST Marathon (now headed by William Carden) at the top of its game, but also of playwright David Auburn, who gathered an armload of awards for “Proof” and then evaporated from the New York theater scene after his coolly received 2004 play “The Journals of Mihail Sebastian.” Since then, he has been a byline on film work like the Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock starrer “The Lake House,” as well as the onscreen adaptation of “Proof.”
Auburn’s spare, intensely theatrical contribution to the Marathon, “An Upset,” is a tennis match, sort of: two players, designated Male 1 (the energetic Matt Lauria) and Male 2 (Darren Goldstein) whack heated volleys of post-game dialogue at one another, arguing bad calls, bad decisions and bad luck.
The best thing about “An Upset,” and by extension, the Marathon as an institution, is that there’s nowhere for the playwright to hide. Maiko Chii’s sets are necessarily perfunctory, Danielle Schembre’s costumes are nice but not extravagant, and the whole thing has to be over with quickly — there are four other plays to watch each evening. Quick, make us laugh and care, and wrap the whole thing up neatly!
The other outstanding contribution to the marathon so far (the final installment of this year’s series, running through June 28, is yet to be performed) comes from Anne Washburn, whose “October/November” is the polar opposite of “An Upset.” It’s driven by long swaths of monologue, not just dialogue; it moseys, rather than sprints; and its two teenage characters look forward, not backward.
In fact, the play doesn’t have any close relatives on the EST stage — it’s nearest in tone to cartoonist Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts,” except that the precocious, bratty girl is about twice Lucy’s age and has learned the word “bullshit.” David (the priceless Gio Perez) and Nikkie (deadpanned by Amelia McClain) have real troubles, such as whether to dress up for Halloween and how to survive without friends. But Washburn makes the nerve-wracking seriousness of childhood very funny.
From the same lineup (Series B), Neil LaBute’s latest battle of attrition in the war of the sexes (“The Great War”) is a vast improvement on his piece last year, even though the arguing-couple setup is nearly identical.
At the risk of insulting Laila Robins, she seems born into the part of the hilariously evil, petty wife, and LaBute writes her a wonderfully inappropriate foil: Grant Shaud plays the emasculated version of the Cary Grant-ish sparring partner she deserves.
There are shows that don’t quite make the grade, of course: the musical “A Little Soul Searching” never really justifies its existence. And Lloyd Suh’s 100-year-old protagonist in “Happy Birthday William Abernathy” sounds like the much younger playwright mimicking an elderly racist.Inauthenticity is also the problem with large sections of “Okay,” by Taylor Mac, but the sprawling seven-character, 30-minute-plus high school bathroom drama has some well-observed scenes, particularly a monologue by a girl (Olivia Mandell) doing coke with her friend (Jessica Jade Andres, who has 18 spoken lines, 15 of which are “Totally”). That section, and the acting (particularly the unstoppable Kether Donohue) save the play from sounding like anecdotes Mac once heard at a party.
Like the other writers in this series, Mac is dealing with that same demanding level of exposure that Auburn has so neatly aced, and while “Okay” works only intermittently, it’s a fine example of the kind of immediate experience the Marathon is so good at providing. More than ever in recent years, EST is testing the boundaries of playwriting, finding new territory every couple of weeks.