Short-play anthologies are like books of short stories, except that you can skip through a book of short stories if you’re not enjoying one of the entries. Producers of the “Summer Shorts” series would do well to bear that in mind the next time they have a forgotten gem like William Inge’s “The Killing” or a tight little drama like Neil LaBute’s “A Second of Pleasure” on their hands. Just because you can force your audience to sit and wait for the good stuff to start doesn’t mean you should.
For their third series of one-act plays, producers J.J. Kandel and John McCormack have rounded up enough talent for one good evening of theater, but they’ve stuck with their format and padded things out into two distinct bills of fare, containing roughly two good plays (out of four) each. Interestingly, the three most painful offerings are all by writers who had their work in last year’s “Summer Shorts 2,” so perhaps the time has come for Kandel and McCormack to cast their nets a little wider.
They should hang on to Roger Hedden, though, whose “If I Had,” while not quite up to last year’s “Deep in the Hole,” is still very good in a Mamet-for-young-adults kind of way. The one-act follows two yard workers — excuse me, “landscape maintenance” professionals — one riddled with jealousy (Andy Powers), the other more or less content (Shane McRae). The two have a fraught encounter with their employers’ bikini-clad teenage daughter (Emily Tremaine) that doesn’t quite lead anywhere dangerous, but Hedden’s style gives the whole piece a scary vibe that mostly makes you wish it were longer.
Then there’s LaBute, whose shortform writing is so reliably good that it’s a relief to see his name on the program. “A Second of Pleasure” (very close to the title of his surprisingly gentle short-story collection) follows a typically self-aggrandizing creep (Victor Slezak) and his adulterous lover (Margaret Colin), sketches its characters quickly and well and paces its clues about them perfectly. LaBute has us hanging on every word, and we don’t learn everything until the play’s very last moment.
Without giving anything away, it’s worth noting that LaBute’s world is becoming less and less hospitable to nasty, spiteful jackasses, regardless of their high IQs and grand salaries. His women, too, have figured out how to show their men the door (as evidenced in “Reasons to Be Pretty”), and how to generally stick up for the right thing. Both actors acquit themselves very well here, and helmer Andrew McCarthy has given it the minimalist staging it needs.
The less said about Keith Reddin’s slavish “Electra” rehash “The Sin Eater,” the better, except that the play stars the same overmatched young actress who was in his intermittently funny “Our Time Is Up” last year, and it’s hard to watch her in this clumsy play without feeling bad for her. John Augustine’s contribution (“Death By Chocolate”) is of similar quality, except that instead of an unmoving drama, it’s an unfunny comedy. Aaron Paternoster deserves a Purple Heart for his performance in the latter.
Slightly better is Skip Kennon and Bill Connington’s micro-opera “The Eternal Anniversary,” a deeply maudlin ghost story that tries to surprise and fails. Kennon and Terrence McNally knocked it out of the park last year with another short musical, “Plaisir d’Amour,” and Bill Connington scared the bejesus out of the brave souls who sat all the way through his solo show “Zombie” at Theater Row (which he also adapted from a Joyce Carol Oates story), so it’s tempting to write the show off as a simple misstep, especially since it seems to hold promise in its early stages before deflating. Thesps Robert W. DuSold and Leenya Rideout have gorgeous voices.
Other plays fall somewhere in the middle: Nancy Giles’ solo piece “Things My Afro Taught Me” survives solely on Giles’ considerable charm; Stephanie D’Abruzzo and Andy Grotelueschen make wonderful things out of Carole Real’s “Don’t Say Another Word,” which is cute but doesn’t do much.
Last and best, though, is William Inge’s horrifying “The Killing,” a terrific one-act, never before performed, about an unnamed man (Neal Huff) and the guy he picks up in a bar (J.J. Kandel) for reasons that aren’t clear until well into the play. The setup is vaguely reminiscent of an Alfred Hitchcock scenario and gets an appropriately noirish staging from helmer Jose Angel Santana.
“Summer Shorts” remains a worthy series, and it’s nice to see work that occasionally pushes the shortform boundaries (especially “The Killing”), but it could use some new blood. Other short-play marathons frequently go on for three evenings without feeling strained, so perhaps it’s time for Kandel and McCormack to consider open submissions.