An eagerly awaited smorgasbord of new one-acts

The Ensemble Studio Theatre, a vigorous Off Broadway company, has become an increasingly important vehicle for new voices in American theater. And no more so than during its annual new play festival -- a marathon of one-act plays that is one of the season's more eagerly anticipated theater events. Audiences crowding the tiny theater on West 52nd Street during marathon month include actors, agents, producers, and studio talent scouts. And for good reason. Past Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST) finds include Christopher Durang's ``Sister Mary Ignatius,'' Shel Silverstein's ``The Lady or the Tiger,'' and Shirley Lauro's ``Open Admissions.''

This year ``Marathon '85'' marks the Ensemble's eighth new play festival with a series of 12 one-acts spread over three separate programs. As in years past, Curt Dempster, the artistic director and EST founder, serves up a varied platter of theatrical offerings -- a smorgasbord of themes and styles in which the angular prose of a David Mamet brushes up against the Texas drawl of a Horton Foote before ricocheting off the wacky dialogue of an Alan Zweibel.

Untested and untried, the premi`ering plays are unabashedly developmental. Individually, their merits may vary (in ``Series A,'' ``Life Under Water,'' by newcomer Richard Greenberg, stole the show from Mr. Mamet's ``The Frog Prince''). Collectively, they're an invigorating forum for American theater.

Series B and C (the latter program runs through June 17) continues the eclectic mix. Mr. Silverstein and Mr. Zweibel weigh in with artful comic pieces. Mr. Foote's ``Road to the Graveyard'' continues that Oscar-winning screenwriter's (``Tender Mercies'' and ``To Kill a Mockingbird'') fascination with declining pre-World War II Texas. Other works, including an unusually flat piece by Keith Reddin, author of ``Life and Limb,'' which played early this year Off Broadway, were less satisfying but still intriguing for their no-holds-barred acting.

``One Tennis Shoe,'' a two-person drama by Silverstein, a playwright and children's books author, hit the ground running with a sight gag (a bald man listening to a story about hair, but you had to be there) that was a prelude for a series of funny yet provocative revelations. Silverstein's humor is always under control, flowing smoothly from the juxtaposition of the oh-my-gosh-what-next disclosures (kleptomania and transsexuality) and the oh-so-upscale tableau created by director Art Wolff and actors James Tolkan and Janet Zarish. But the prize in this box of Cracker Jack was a decidedly unfunny moment -- call it chilling -- when Ms. Zarish went from cool Upper East Side matron to ranting bag lady without missing a beat.

``Painting a Wall,'' by South African playwright David Lan, was the festival's lone foreign work and the one most brimming with political ambitions. However noble it was, the play's reach exceeded its grasp. Artistically borrowing from Mark Twain, Athol Fugard, and Samuel Beckett, Mr. Lan has created a thematic hodgepodge that touches on too many themes, political and metaphysical, in a manner more dialectical than dramatic. Jason Parris Fitz-Gerald and Raymond Anthony Thomas are fine as the two protagonists. Alvin Alexis and Harsh Nayyar have too little to do.

``The Semi-Formal,'' by newcomer Louisa Jerauld, a mini-tale of young love in the WASP suburbs, exhibits the author's sure eye for teen-age speech and action. The piece needs fleshing out to be a fuller, more cohesive portrait of adolescent affection and betrayal. Corey Parker as Patrick is just the right mix of teen-age insecurity and bravado. Fifteen-year-old Samantha Atkins performs her role as brainy but unbeautiful Janice with uncanny aplomb.

``North of Providence,'' by Edward Allan Baker, exhibited strong performances by Lucinda Jenny and Bruce MacVittie as emotionally damaged siblings grappling with past sins and abuses. Mr. Baker, author of two other Ensemble-produced plays, is less able. Much of his dialogue is untenable (``It makes my heart hurt''), as is the play's predictable psychotherapy (``Pockets of tension collect all over your body''). As directed by Risa Bramon, a veteran Ensemble director, the play begins at a screeching pitch and has nowhere else to go.

The four plays that made up the recently closed Series B balanced the pathos with the humor. In ``Between Cars,'' Zweibel, a former ``Saturday Night Live'' writer, unleashed a not quite surrealistic fantasy involving two Yuppie toll booth operators and a sound track ranging from the Supremes to Lerner and Lowe. Elizabeth Perkins and Perry Lang were daffy and delightful as the duo who wind up dancing, and smooching, the night away.

More sober fare was served up in Foote's ``Road to the Graveyard,'' which is geographically and thematically reminiscent of his other work. Under artistic director Dempster's direction, Foote's one-act rose to full-length impact. Repression and unacknowledged discord ripple under the deceptively placid surface of a 1930s Texas family rocking away the years. Roberta Maxwell's performance of India, the ``selflessly'' devoted daughter, was riveting.

The weakest half of the program occurred before the intermission. Keith Reddin's ``Desperadoes'' was an unusually flaccid piece by this talented author. A tale of a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde on the run after robbing a convenience store, the work was surprisingly bereft of dramatic tension, although not for lack of effort by actors Sam McMurray, Karen Young, and Michael Kaufmann. The author's chief dramatic conceit -- victim and victimizer are former best friends -- is mostly gimcrack.

Stuart Spencer's ``Aggressive Behavior,'' a series of artsy, quasi-political conversations between two Greenwich Village homosexual friends, amounted to little more than artfully re-created 1980s dialogue.

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