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Young Playwrights Festival 2002

The most promising thing about this year's promising young playwrights (all 18 or under when they wrote these plays) is that they actually seem to be writing for the stage instead of TV sitcoms and teen soaps, which seem to be the usual inspiration for tyro scribblers.

The most promising thing about this year’s promising young playwrights (all 18 or under when they wrote these plays) is that they actually seem to be writing for the stage instead of TV sitcoms and teen soaps, which seem to be the usual inspiration for tyro scribblers. And while there is no sign in these plays of the risky experimentalism of a young Sam Shepard or Maria Irene Fornes, all three show a grasp of the possibilities of the craft, with characters who aren’t what they seem, time that doesn’t stand still and language they don’t teach in school.

In “An Ice Cream Man for All Seasons,” written by Molly Lambert when she was 17, two street vendors set up their carts in Central Park on a freezing cold day and proceed to argue for and against the insanity of trying to sell ice cream in the dead of winter. Jonathan Sale’s hot-dog guy has logic on his side, but Keith Davis’ ice-cream man makes a good case for the character-building qualities of “ingenuity, skill, and perseverance” that it takes to coax a cold customer into buying an icy fudgesicle. Despite its charming air of fantasy, this is no child’s play but an existential duel in which one man’s trust in dreams and imagination poses a threat to another man’s sense of stability and order. Until she overstates her point by taking it too far and making it too literal (problems exacerbated by some acting overkill), Lambert has come up with a sweet conceit for a conflict of genuine consequence.

“Parts They Call Deep,” which Lauren Gunderson wrote when she was 18, is built on a situation that could either be very funny or very scary: Three generations of women in the same family hop in a Winnebago and, without a lick of preparation, head south for Florida. Considering the circumstances that put them on the road — grandma grieving for a son she has just buried, daughter Sarah reeling from her husband’s betrayal and abandonment, young Emma in furious denial — humor would seem to be the imperative choice.

Shannon Emerick uses some reliable acting tricks to put a smile into 16-year-old Emma’s putdowns of her elders, but she can’t mask the girl’s bitter tone. Anger is the undigested emotion here, and the pain of all three women is so palpable that this trip, although worth taking for the edgy give-and-take of the relationships, is a rough one.

“Trade” looks like one thing and turns out to be another. Caroline V. McGraw, who wrote the play when 18, pulls off this neat deception by presenting her characters — two cohabiting couples in a college town in upstate New York — as superficial little twits in a lightweight relationship comedy. While Adam and Vince are working in a supermarket to put themselves through school, their girlfriends Fawn and Darla have given up their education (and not a moment too soon) to stay at home playing house.

The situation seems to suit them, until the guys welsh on a gambling bet and a young woman named Trudy who comes to collect the debt convinces them to “trade” her their girlfriends. Trudy, in a subtly shaded and slightly eerie performance by Gina Hirsch, has no sexual designs on the girls; but the high price she puts on Fawn and Darla, as women and as friends, forces everyone to re-evaluate themselves and each other.

Suddenly, Fawn’s yearning to be the bottled genie in “I Dream of Jeannie” seems more plaintive than idiotic. Speaking with a schizzy detachment that makes Emerick’s performance daring, her terrible insight that “it’s nice to know your own worth” takes the play into serious territory. Not a silly comedy, after all.

For the record, all three of the playwrights should know how well served they are by this production — maybe too well served. Although no one would deny them the crisp sets, character-defining costumes and clarifying lighting that give their plays a thoroughly professional look, the directors and dramaturgs have been a bit too kind. Less indulgence of overwritten dialogue and a more stringent approach to unfocused scenes are good teaching methods, too.

Young Playwrights Festival 2002

Cherry Lane Theater; 67 seats; $30

  • Production: A Young Playwrights Inc. presentation of three one-act plays. "An Ice Cream Man for All Seasons," written by Molly Lambert, directed by Jeremy Dobrish; "Parts They Call Deep," written by Lauren Gunderson, directed by Brett W. Reynolds; "Trade," written by Caroline V. McGraw, directed by Valentina Fratti.
  • Crew: Sets, Heesoo Kim; costumes, Laurie Churba; lighting, Pat Dignan; sound, Raymond D. Schilke; production stage manager, Bonnie Brady and Glenn Cooley. Artistic director, Sheri M.Goldhirsch. Opened Oct. 13, 2002; reviewed Oct. 15. Running time: 2 Hours, 30 Min.
  • Cast: Ice Cream Man - Keith Davis Hot Dog Vendor - Jonathan Sale Emma - Shannon Emerick Sarah - Cynthia Hood Bea - Celia Howard Alex - Nathan Darrow Fawn - Shannon Emerick Adam - Nathan Darrow Vince - Ryan Rentmeester Darla - Adriana Gaviria Trudy - Gina Hirsch Harry - Jonathan Sale
  • Music By: