Short play collections are always a mixed bag, but rarely are they as mixed as the Flea Theater’s “The Great Recession.” Boasting some of Off Broadway’s most popular writers, the anthology varies wildly in tone from dystopian dirge to cynical comedy. The best of the bunch are Will Eno’s ruminative “Unum” and Thomas Bradshaw’s hilariously biting “New York Living,” both of which manage to mine new seams in the much-discussed terrain of the financial crisis.
The evening starts with introductions from our Host (an energetic Nick Maccarone), greeting everyone with a warm smile and an anarchist leaflet. The solicitousness would be less disconcerting if he wasn’t wearing Joker makeup, but it doesn’t get any less skin-crawling.
We immediately launch into Adam Rapp’s “Classic Kitchen Timer,” in which Lucy (Sarah Ellen Stephens) explains that we have only a few minutes to stop her from doing something truly horrible in order to survive.
The premise is interesting but the execution (Rapp also directs) feels fraudulent. The playwright asks us to believe, for example, that there’s a baby in an upstage crib because he’s placed a video camera above it and shows pictures of a baby on a screen. The trick calls attention to itself in such a way that we inspect it and dismiss it, negating the rest of the play’s impact.
Itamar Moses is up next with “Fucked,” which has a terrific part for Jessica Pohly as a woman about to be dumped by her trust-fund-reliant boyfriend (Dorien Makhloghi). But this clever little naturalistic drama as a whole would be a lot better without its punchline, which reduces the work to an extremely simple metaphor.
It doesn’t help that Moses’ short is immediately followed by Bradshaw’s, a nicely layered parody of on-the-nose political drama. Bradshaw specializes in characters who say exactly what they mean with absolutely no subtext, and here those characters are actors in a hilariously hamfisted Iraq war play.
“Who shall I become, now that I’ve lost my best friend to George Bush’s godforsaken war?” wonders pathetic actor Jeff (a very funny Raul Sigmund Julia) in what looks worryingly like a scene from the new Jim Sheridan movie. Ethan McSweeney does a particularly fine job directing the varying levels of irony.
Erin Courtney’s “Severed” is the odd man out here — like Moses’ play, it doesn’t much benefit from close proximity to Bradshaw’s much smarter short. But Courtney also doesn’t have Moses’ ear for dialogue or the same eye for her characters’ shortcomings. Amy Jackson does a serviceable job as protag Polka Dot, but the material’s weird marriage of personal testimonials and soppy sentimentalism dissolves any goodwill pretty quickly.
Far and away the most disturbing thing onstage is Sheila Callaghan’s “Recess,” an 11-character piece that appears to take place after the financial apocalypse — emphasis on “apocalypse.”
The characters have all lapsed into some kind of despair — delusion, anorexia, sex addiction, pick a neurosis — but it’s hard to tell what Callaghan expects the whole thing to add up to. Still, it’s enthralling to watch, especially in early moments when it’s simply a bunch of unhinged people going about their everyday business after the end of the world. One can only imagine how long it took director Kip Fagan to choreograph the thing.
The evening’s final play is both the best-conceived and the best commentary on the country’s financial morass. Eno writes an even bigger (12 characters) piece about the everyday use of money and what it does to us. His quiet evocation of cliches like “money talks” (a dollar bill has “Hi, Mom!” written on it) and “passing the buck” (the story shifts around bills that change hands) help build to a better understanding of why we need money in the first place, and what our priorities should look like.
It’s a fitting end to the eclectic evening, and like most of Eno’s short work, seems to quiet everything down so we can listen to what’s happening around it.