American culture is indicted in three very different ways in Series B of 59E59's Summer Shorts Festival — and all within a delightfully breezy 90 minutes. It's a sampler platter of religious patriarchy, wedding antipathy, and athlete hero worship — each executed with insight, humor, and refreshing brevity.
Chris Cragin-Day sets her play, A Woman (directed by Kel Haney), in the office of Presbyterian Pastor Cliff (Mark Boyett). His childhood friend and longtime church member Kim (Jennifer Ikeda) joins him — first for a mansplaining lesson on how to make French press coffee, followed by a discussion about Kim's latest nomination for church elder. She's nominated "a woman" — any woman at all, as she clarifies it for a confused Pastor Cliff. The church presently has none and she believes the institution could benefit from a female leader. The only problem is that the Presbyterian Church does not allow women to serve as elders. Deacons? Sort of. Assistants to deacons? Definitely. But elders? Absolutely not. Of course, Pastor Cliff explains, that doesn't mean women aren't leaders in the church. They just do their leading from the rear. Cragin-Day fortunately writes a whip-smart female lead (played by a delectably unapologetic Ikeda) who is far too cunning to eat the bull she's being fed. She instead gives the unbecoming title "raging feminist" a warm bear hug and puts her money where her mouth is when Cliff calls her bluff. It's arguable whether a religious debate could unfold like this in real life, but it's certainly satisfying to see onstage.
Lindsey Kraft and Andrew Leeds shift toward the sitcom-esque with their hyperbolic comedy Wedding Bash. Directed by J.J. Kandel with just enough tongue in cheek, the play sends up the back-biting, consumer-driven wedding culture that's turned the romantic milestone into a competitive sport. Lonny (Donovan Mitchell) and Dana (Rachel Napoleon) recently tied the knot at a destination wedding in Sedona, Arizona, and are now waiting for two of their friends to arrive at their fancy apartment for a dinner party, during which they will surely confirm it was the wedding of the century. Before their beloved guests arrive, however, Lonny and Dana have to evaluate their loyalty based on the price of their wedding gifts. Alan (Andy Powers) and a very pregnant Edi (Georgia Ximenes Lifsher) eventually appear and dutifully dish out the compliments, but of course, in private conversation, bitter complaints about overpriced hotels, cheap food, and a tacky ceremony come flooding out (Powers carrying most of the comedy with his hilariously dry acrimony). They name all the things everyone hates about the wedding industry and ultimately indulge in the masochistic fantasy of tearing the nuptials to shreds in front of its foul, self-satisfied hosts. They mention no grievances we haven't heard (or experienced) before, but it's a perfectly gratifying exercise in comedic catharsis.
Neil LaBute rounds out the trio of plays with Break Point, a two-hander that gradually cranks up the heat between a pair of tennis players preparing to face each other in the semifinal match of the French Open. John Garrett Greer plays Oliver, a cocky multimillionaire with 19 Major titles to his name (one away from a record), while the far more grounded Keilyn Durrel Jones plays Stan, a strong but less consistent player with only one championship win in his career. Oliver is at once Stan's peer and his idol — someone he rose alongside as well as the one he looked to for inspiration, in the way of most athlete idolatry. However, if we peek through the curtain, behind those inspirational Nike commercials are millions of dollars, and behind that veneer of invincibility is a whole lot of desperation. LaBute's specialty is revealing these unappealing sides of human nature, and he does it well as a corrupt proposal by Oliver knocks a hero off Stan's pedestal.
Athletes are responsible for touting some of our greatest moral principles, waxing poetic about sportsmanship and teamwork and perseverance. And yet they're the first ones to disappoint (or maybe second behind politicians) when scandal after scandal proves that a winning image trumps fair play. Fortunately, LaBute leaves it to us to decide whether Stan will sink under the weight of his disillusionment. If A Woman offers the best depiction of human nature and Wedding Bash the worst, Break Point shows us the most accurate — the fulcrum in between at the moment it's ready to topple one way or the other.
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