Marathon ’97-SERIES B

The four plays in Series B of "Marathon '97," the 20th edition of Ensemble Studio Theater's one-act play festival, variously demonstrate the strengths (focus and intensity) and weaknesses (sketchiness and incompleteness) of the form. "Real Real Gone" is the best of the bunch, as author Michael Louis Wells lets his characters (two working-class young men of Irish descent) ramble on to show the lack of direction in their lives. The playwright balances what we are told with what we may guess. While his characters talk as ceaselessly as those in the other plays, Wells has created far and away the most physical of the pieces. His actors use their bodies as purposeful manifestations of the emotional bond between the men. One character drops into a trance as well as into the dependable arms of the other character. In his trance, Mitchell (Thomas McHugh) serves as a channel for voices from beyond, including those of the boys' deceased fathers. (To improve the reception, the guys meet in a graveyard.)

MISTRESSES;Roscoe Born (Sandler), Bob Balaban (Spode), Rob Sedgwick (Marshall). A BACKWARD GLANCE;Sandra Shipley (Evelyn), Stephanie Roth (Cherry). PATRONAGE;Dan Ziskie (Husband), Dana Reeve (Wife), Chris Noth (Musician), Marc Romeo (Visitor). REAL REAL GONE;Joseph Lyle Taylor (Carl), Thomas McHugh (Mitchell).

While waiting for Mitchell to be seized, they discuss their childhood, families, relationships with women, and more, in language that laces the natural poetics of the street with erudition that comes of “listening to too much public radio,” as Mitchell accuses Carl (Joseph Lyle Taylor) of doing. The play ends with dramatic revelations and passionate resolves.

Michael Weller’s “Mistresses” is not as ambitious as “Real Real Gone” but is successful in achieving more modest aims. Two men, older but less wise than the lads of “Real Real Gone,” share a cigarette break at 3 a.m. on an urban street in a loft district in which they are pioneering homesteaders. While they wait for the tempers of their respective spouses to cool so that they may go back to their beds, they discuss the tactics and strategy of having a mistress, using their own experiences as examples of their theories. It is good guy talk of the jadedly smart-but-dumb variety, conveying logical arguments spun out of shell-shocked premises.

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“A Backward Glance” is aptly named, for it offers little more than a quick look, a snapshot of an uncomfortable moment between two women. The younger of them has just returned to her native New Zealand after traveling in Europe for several years. The older woman is her neighbor, and the mother of a man with whom the young woman was emotionally involved. Author Julie McKee conjures up a definite tension between the two, but whatever resolution there is between them or in their individual lives lies beyond the scope of the single act presented.

“Patronage” patronizes. It is a joke, poor to begin with, made destitute by being expanded into play form. A wealthy man accuses a musician of having an affair with his wife. The musician, who has been giving the man’s wife piano lessons, denies the allegation, as does the wife. What the husband really wants to talk about is not adultery, but art, with a capital A. The musician obliges. The shallowness of their exchange makes one wish they had duked it out instead, and author Romulus Linney bails out of doing any work with his premise by dropping a plane on his characters, apparently having fulfilled some minimum time requirement.

All four plays are energized by first-rate performances and solid direction. Particularly impressive are Taylor and McHugh as the two young men trying to put their lives in order in “Real Real Gone,” Dan Ziskie as the angry husband in “Patronage,” and Bob Balaban and Roscoe Born as the dispossessed husbands of “Mistresses.”

Marathon '97-SERIES B

Series B opened May 21, 1997, at Ensemble Studio Theater. Reviewed May 24; 99 seats; $15 top

Production: NEW YORK An Ensemble Studio Theater presentation of four one-act plays. Sets, Mike Allen; costumes, Amela Baksic; lighting, Greg MacPherson; sound, Geoffrey Sitter; production stage manager, Gretchen Knowlton; executive producer, Jamie Richards; associate producer, John Forbes. EST artistic director, Curt Dempster.. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Creative: MISTRESSES Written by Michael Weller. Directed by Susann Brinkley.; A BACKWARD GLANCE Written by Julie McKee. Directed by Julie Boyd.; PATRONAGE Written by Romulus Linney. Directed by Tom Bullard.; REAL REAL GONE Written by Michael Louis Wells, Directed by Jamie Richards.

Cast: MISTRESSES;Roscoe Born (Sandler), Bob Balaban (Spode), Rob Sedgwick (Marshall). A BACKWARD GLANCE;Sandra Shipley (Evelyn), Stephanie Roth (Cherry). PATRONAGE;Dan Ziskie (Husband), Dana Reeve (Wife), Chris Noth (Musician), Marc Romeo (Visitor). REAL REAL GONE;Joseph Lyle Taylor (Carl), Thomas McHugh (Mitchell).

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