One-act plays get tryouts at N.Y. festival. Misses can be interesting, while one looks for hits

Like many of the 350 events comprising the First New York International Festival of the Arts, the Ensemble Studio Theatre's Marathon '88 was, as festival critics here say, going to happen anyway. EST's annual Festival of New One-Act Plays is, in fact, something of an Off Broadway fixture, having brought to the stage in its 11 seasons brand new, if bonsai-sized, works by such playwrights as Christopher Durang, David Mamet, Horton Foote, Tennessee Williams, and Marsha Norman. Never mind that few of these works ever found a future home. Durang's ``Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You,'' which enjoyed a long life in an expanded form, is one of the happiest exceptions. And last year, Alan Bowne's ``Beirut'' moved from the marathon to an Off Broadway run. Despite such transfers, the marathon has traditionally served, under EST artistic director Curt Dempster, as that rare venue in which established playwrights can experiment, and new playwrights can test the waters. Indeed, several writers, including Richard Greenberg, Darrah Cloud, Eduardo Machado, and Mary Gallagher, have built careers solely out of their work at EST.

This season, the marathon premi`eres 12 one-act plays in three series. These include new works by Lanford Wilson, Romulus Linney, Horton Foote, and Oyamo. Series B, which I saw and which runs through July 4, is a typical mixed bag, as enjoyable for its misses as for its hits. Collectively, the four plays - by Mr. Linney, Stuart Spencer, James Ryan, and Paul Weitz - also serve as a window on New York playwrights' parochial concerns, which include the theater, relationships, the rich, and, of course, real estate.

In James Ryan's ``Door to Cuba,'' Peter, a yuppie landlord, buys a building in Weehawken, N.J., and deals with his non-rent-paying tenants - through the mail slot. Like Peter, we never see the recalcitrant Mr. Costa, or The Man (as the program states). But we hear him moaning behind his locked door. The Man is from Cuba; he has no money; he suffers from an ulcer. But Peter wants him out. In the nicest possible way.

Peter's thousand-dollar bribe, wedged through the mail slot, doesn't work. The Man tosses it back. Events turn nasty when Costa tosses a bloody knife through the door. Finally, the play turns predictable.

Playwright Ryan could have given us an interesting look at the life on other side of the door. But ``Door to Cuba'' is content to stay on the yuppie side of things. When that knife comes flying through the mail slot, Peter picks it up with a look, not of revulsion, but of Filofax worldweariness. ``Do you know how much time this takes?'' he asks.

Cat-and-mouse game

Stuart Spencer's ``Human Gravity'' is dramatically the most interesting of the four one-acts, playing a pleasant game of cat-and-mouse with the audience, which is kept coyly off balance, for the first 10 minutes anyway, figuring out who, is, uh, involved with whom within the fey m'enage `a trois. Once the cards are on the table, however, Gil, Kyle, and Lydia (Keith Reddin, Bradley Whitford, and Jennifer Van Dyck) become rather less interesting. Keeping up with their emotional and sexual motivations requires more energy than this game deserves. Or maybe a lifetime in Avenue A bars, where, as Gil says, ``You don't meet people; they enter your sphere.'' Spencer fills the dramatic gaps with spare Pinteresque dialogue that is meant to speak volumes. As Gil says at play's end, speaking presumably, for the audience as well, ``That was certainly complicated.''

More fun is to be had in Mr. Weitz's ``Mango Tea,'' a hilariously misfiring drama that, with tongue more firmly in cheek, could be a satire on the lifestyles of New York's rich and famous. Daddy (James Murtaugh) is a brain surgeon-cum-mad-scientist who uses his black lacquered penthouse for turning the city's hapless low-lifes into lobotomized houseboys. Good help is so hard to find.

Daughter Felicia (Marisa Tomei) does her part by pouting, serving sedative-laced tea, and luring the lads into the aerie with such seductive lines as ``You can join me after you drag that corpse into the kitchen.'' As Manny (Victor Slezak), the latest of these leather-jacketed victims, says with lyrical authenticity, ``Whatever.'' And that's before Daddy uses his scalpel.

Comedy from Romulus Linney

Linney's ``Juliet'' is perhaps the most disappointing of the four. Linney is author of more than two dozen plays, and three of his one-acts had an extended run Off Broadway. But ``Juliet'' opens with a tired dilemma, a face-off between a play's aging star and its upstart director. Then it quickly moves on to an untenable denouement, when the director's mother shows up, and in 10 short minutes dispatches a lifetime of childhood Angst and reconciles him with the star. So much for verisimilitude. Thomas Gibson, Sam Schacht, Robin Moseley, and Lois Smith manage to make some of this workable; they have more fun with Linney's redeemingly sly humor.

Marathon 1988 continues at the EST through July 18.

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