The best thing about “Power Plays,” the agreeably amusing trilogy at the Promenade Theater, is the combined acting, writing and direction of Elaine May and Alan Arkin. The comic adroitness and studied economy of their talents offer a master class in timing and delivery.
In the curtain-raiser, “The Way of All Fish,” May has devised a ghoulish encounter between a wealthy Madison Avenue business exec and her mousy secretary. When the well-organized Ms. Asquith discovers her dinner plans have been disrupted, she invites her efficient secretary, Miss Riverton (Jeannie Berlin), to share a glass of wine and send out for Japanese cuisine. As the secretary (and would-be “assistant,” because the title pays more) consumes several glasses of the grape, the tentative conversation, which begins with the clarity of the wine, leads to the sex life of fish and the body-building values of daily aerobic exercise.
The chat takes a menacing turn when Riverton opines that the only way she’ll ever become famous is to murder a celebrity. Assessing the accomplishments of assassins, she dismisses Booth, who only killed a president, and Manson, who murdered a starlet and a few hairdressers. She decides to settle for someone rich and important, adding, “Oprah’s a possibility!”
Asquith reveals a quiet terror with the realization that she is playing “cat and mouse with a bimbo.” Berlin (May’s daughter) is effectively droll and humorously chilling as the spaced-out secretary. May invests the employer with the expressive, mannered restraint that once defined her classic improvisational pieces with Mike Nichols.
In Arkin’s “Virtual Reality,” the playwright and his son, Anthony, flirt with the kind of elusive comic expanse one would expect of Beckett or Ionesco. Meeting in a murky warehouse, Lefty (Anthony) and De Recha (Alan) await a shipment of supplies needed for an undefined job. When the materials do not arrive on time, De Recha suggests a dry-run rehearsal of checking the contents on an imagined manifest.
Lefty, who has no idea of what the job is or what the shipping crates could possibly contain, gets progressively flustered as he goes through a charade of identifying invisible items and attempting to assemble them. The pair enter a frustrating sparring match as they concur or disagree with the incriminating contents. A timing device, gas masks, inflatable rafts and fake Argentine passports, all unseen, but described with clarity, suggest a dangerous mission. The piece is a tad long, but it’s deliciously rendered by Arkin the elder with his understated delivery and exquisite comic timing, and by Arkin the younger as the confused pawn.
May’s “In and Out of the Light” unites all four actors in a more manic spree. Paying homage to the “Nichols and May Examine Doctors” routines, with perhaps a fond dash of Smith and Dale’s slapstick Dr. Kronkite skit thrown in, the play finds Alan Arkin as a lecherous dentist ogling his ditsy, buxomy blonde nurse (May), attending to the root canal of a panicky psychologist (Berlin), and coming to terms with his gay son (Anthony). It has its moments of high hilarity, including heart attacks and dental chair gymnastics. It’s infectious nonsense, and May delightfully limns the timeless dumb blonde.
Arkin has directed the triplet with a knowing balance between economy and comic restraint, finally letting loose with unbridled rhythm in the final melee. His union with May is an enriching collaboration between veteran masters of off-the-wall humor.
Michael McGarty’s diverse sets offer a posh Madison Avenue penthouse suite, a gloomy warehouse stacked with old tires, and a functional pair of adjoining professional offices.