The mix of ingredients that has made the Young Playwrights Festival the premier showcase for novice scribes seems to have settled into a formula, for better or worse. The 12th annual festival of four one-act plays displays the incipient writing talent and production polish that is the festival’s trademark, but the absence of both surprise and the excitement of discovery makes for some real disappointment.
The festival’s penchant for heavy (and often heavy-handed) plays depicting inner-city woes is seen in both Kim Daniel’s “Crystal Stairs” and Jerome D. Hairston’s “Live From the Edge of Oblivion.” Both plays include pregnant crack addicts as characters, an indication of the works’ mood and the spirit of the playwrights.
Despite some heartfelt dialogue, decent acting and Mark Brokaw’s adept staging, “Crystal Stairs” is overly familiar and burdened with symbolism.
Evette (Stacy Highsmith), a pregnant teenage crack addict, shares a subway car with a young man — on their way, of course, to “nowhere.” After a few exchangeswith the man and several flashbacks depicting her troubled relationship with her mother (a crack-addicted prostitute), the girl apparently dies of an overdose.
Hopelessness is also the theme of Hairston’s more fully developed play. In “Live From the Edge of Oblivion,” directed by Marion McClinton, a teenage boy named Johnas (Akili Prince) is visited by any number of ghetto-dwelling types (and types they are) who emerge from his television set.
A gun-toting hoodlum, a sadistic cop, a philosophizing wino, a patronizing teacher and an evangelist are among those who interrupt Johnas while he’s working on a school essay about the end of the world.
Hairston pens some good speeches for his characters but doesn’t sculpt the words into satisfying drama. The television premise is hit and miss, with the characters usually just addressing the audience. While “Oblivion” contains some of the festival’s best moments, it stumbles from its lack of structure and focus.
Amid the urban drama, the festival usually tosses in an absurdist, anti-establishment comedy, and this year’s offering is “Five Visits From Mr. Whitcomb.” Carter L. Bays’ play (directed by Michael Mayer) features a naive simpleton, Tom (Daniel Jenkins), content to live life in his one-room log cabin with a pet fish named Ron.
Innocence is interrupted by an IRS agent (Robert Stanton) and subsequent other authority figures who just can’t leave Tom, Ron and well enough alone.
Much of Bays’ humor is genuine if obvious, but he doesn’t really get beyond a surface slap at the standard-issue powers-that-be. Still, he has some fun trying.
In an odd way, Madeleine George’s “Sweetbitter Baby” (directed by Seret Scott) is the only haunting play of the quartet.
Less showy and self-conscious than the other works, “Baby” is a two-hander: A middle-class, borderline airhead, teenage girl spends the night with boyfriend Sasha, a recent Russian emigre troubled by culture clash and family problems.
George’s odd-couple play certainly isn’t without flaws — it meanders, is overlong and fizzles out in the end. But in Sasha (well played by Michael Stuhlbarg), George has created the most arresting, complex and original character of this year’s festival.
He clearly outshines his forgettable American girlfriend (Lucy Deakins), and the playwright might be well encouraged to find more suitable company and context for him.
George’s program bio indicates an interest and experience in Russian culture, and her expertise and passion obviously fueled this character study.
The same doesn’t seem true of the other plays, which are more like soapboxes for the young playwrights’ opinions. The teenage authors can be forgiven; the festival can stand some growing up.