Thank God for the law of averages. 59E59’s “Summer Shorts 2” might merely be a swamp of lousy direction and poorly edited writing were it not for Terrence McNally and Skip Kennon’s lovely little musical comedy “Plaisir D’Amour,” which makes excellent use of “Avenue Q” vet Stephanie D’Abruzzo as Ruth and Jonathan C. Kaplan as her partner Sam. It feels odd to call a 30-minute show an extravaganza, but that’s the most fitting word. The rest of the series wavers between the mediocre and the amusing; there are bright spots but there are really dim patches too.
Consider, for example, Michael Domitrovich’s contribution to series B (the program includes two separate lineups of four plays each), “On Island,” a short piece about two brothers sitting on a beach, talking through pre-wedding jitters. It’s not a bad setup, but it devolves into a litany of lame movie references and “Princess Bride” quotes, which are funny because the original source is funny, not because Domitrovich is a good writer.
What’s nice about the piece, aside from Jorge Cordova’s turn as the concerned older brother, is that the writer has fully developed characters in mind and knows exactly how they talk and where he wants to go with them. He just needs a dramaturg with a pair of scissors to keep him from taking the scenic route.
Other plays have other things going for them. Series A’s first offering, “The Waters of March,” has Amy Irving, who does wonders for Leslie Lyles’ play about an aging, depressed chanteuse. It’s even possible to forget that director Billy Hopkins has her doing a couple of weird, distracting things like mounting a windowsill with one foot at the play’s climax.
Direction is the Achilles’ heel of this collection; the most painful example is Keith Reddin’s series B opener, “Our Time Is Up,” both badly cast and poorly laid-out by Hopkins, with two people who do nothing but sit and gab for 20 minutes. Contrasting with the approach, Reddin’s play, about a precocious kid (Clara Hopkins Daniels) who turns the tables on her analyst (Janet Zarish), has some real lightness to it; “Time” isn’t an entree but it could be a nice appetizer.
Hopkins isn’t the only one to blame; nobody but helmer Merri Milwe knows what’s going on in “On a Bench,” and actor Mando Alvarado is in trouble from the first word of Eduardo Machado’s uninteresting “Crossing the Border.” What’s most useful about this series, as is frequently the case with short play fests, is that the writing is all over the map, sometimes in a wonderful way. Here we have John Augustine’s amusing series B comedy about vile, self-absorbed New Yorkers (“PeopleSpeak”) in the same room as series A’s “Deep in the Hole,” Roger Hedden’s hilarious goof on suburban terrorism paranoia. Playwrighting is a wide world.
But the prize goes, no contest, to “Plaisir D’Amour,” mostly because of the amazing synchronization of all its disparate elements. It’s not any one song that makes the brief show (really a mini-opera) such a treat. It’s lyrics like Sam’s internal “Go up and chat with her; be charming and be chipper,” while Ruth thinks “He could just be a lieder-loving Jack the Ripper” underneath the strains of the singer (Rita Harvey) they’re both pretending to listen to, crooning in French about the pleasures of love. Sam finally overcomes his shyness, by the way, with a gentlemanly “You have great tits.”
That’s most of what you need to know about “Summer Shorts,” and maybe short play festivals in general. This one, like most others, will disappoint you, it will annoy you by wasting your time, and when you’re just about fed up, it will knock your socks off.