One of the best theater deals of the season is the seventh annual Summer Shorts program at 59E59, two evenings of three one-acts each by award-winning writers, with tickets only $25 per night or $40 for both. Series A begins with Neil LaBute’s Good Luck (in Farsi), in which two actresses, the somewhat successful and well-put-together Paige (Elizabeth Masucci) and the more harried Kate (Gia Crovatin), are waiting to audition for the same role on a series. The two rivals discuss life, love, craft, and competition as they make subtle, and not so subtle, digs at each other while also seemingly helping each other out — or at least pretending to. Writer-director LaBute (The Shape of Things, reasons to be pretty) is able to take a clichéd setup and twist it just enough to turn it into an engaging little battle of wits that is not just about acting, with fine performances by Masucci and Crovatin.
Lucas Hnath’s About a Woman Named Sarah is a curious exercise in narrative, built around the first meeting between the Palins and the McCains at the latters’ Sedona ranch. The play is set up as a series of quickly paced one-on-one conversations among the four characters, with Sarah (Marisa Viola) first getting offered the vice presidency by John (Mark Elliot Wilson), then having a very different kind of talk with Cindy (Stephanie Cannon) before explaining things to her husband, Todd (Ben Vigus). Much of the dialogue consists of small fragments cut short by an annoyingly sharp offstage percussive bang, and Hnath (Red Speedo, Death Tax) and director Eric Hoff don’t bother with developing any kind of realistic setting or having the actors look anything like the characters they’re playing. The scene between Cindy and Sarah works the best, but otherwise the play feels lost in old news.
The gem of the evening is Tina Howe’s Breaking the Spell, an engaging riff on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, directed by Birgitta Victorson. In “merrie olde England,” the king (Michael Countryman) has been waiting for his beloved daughter, Christabel (Crystal Finn), to rise from a hundred-year slumber. But time is running out; if she does not wake soon, the king and the princess and everyone else will die. So the ruler, who spends much of the show sitting in his less-than-impressive throne, fighting severe back pain, desperately implores his Poor Wretched Fool (Bach master Evan Shinners in his impressive, wide-ranging theatrical debut) to bring in a parade of musicians to try to stir Christabel out of her deep sleep. PWF, who can speak only gibberish, then introduces a series of men, all played by Shinners or musician Jesse Scheinin, who use various instruments in a last-ditch effort to save the kingdom. The musical interludes are highlighted by Shinners’s dazzling performance of a prelude from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book Two; Shinners will actually play a different prelude at each show throughout the run. In fact, the play was specifically written for Shinners. Howe met the pianist backstage after a concert, and Shinners later e-mailed her, boldly asking the writer of such works as Painting Churches and Coastal Disturbances to cast him and his friend Scheinin in a play, which she has done, to all our benefit. (Summer Shorts, Series B consists of Marian Fontana’s Falling Short, Paul Weitz’s Change, and Alan Zweibel’s Pine Cone Moment.)