Summer Shorts is a breath of fresh air every summer at 59E59, presenting works by established and emerging writers, from Tina Howe, Robert O’Hara, Terence McNally, and William Inge to Lucas Hnath, Keith Reddin, Alan Zweibel, and Paul Weitz. The thirteenth annual event consists of two programs: Series A, comprising Interior by Nick Payne, The Bridge Play by Danielle Trzcinski, and Here I Lie by Courtney Baron, opened July 28; series B, which I saw, opened this afternoon and continues through August 31. Series B is a trio of compelling works with small casts, featuring sets by Rebecca Lord-Surratt and costumes by Amy Sutton. The triple bill begins with Sharr White’s Lucky, directed by J. J. Kandel. It’s 1949, and Meredith (Christine Spang) has not heard from her husband in six years, since he left to fight in WWII. But Phil (Blake DeLong) suddenly shows up at a hotel, a dour, fiercely private man who refuses to tell Meredith where he’s been, whether he’s sticking around, or even how he feels about her. “I don’t know,” he says over and over. As frustrating as it is for Meredith, it’s even more frustrating for the audience, who are too slowly fed tiny morsels of information until the big reveal, which is not much of a surprise. But Spang is outstanding as the estranged wife who needs to know what the future holds for her in this play by the writer of The Other Place and The True and a writer and producer of the cable shows The Affair and Sweetbitter.
In Nancy Bleemer’s comedy Providence, directed by Ivey Lowe, Jake Robinson’s feet take center stage. Robinson is Michael, who has returned to his childhood home with his wife, Renee (Blair Lewin), for his sister Gina’s wedding. The tall Michael is trying to get to sleep, but his feet stick out from the covers and over the end of the bed. Meanwhile, Renee thinks she is about to get her period and doesn’t have any Tampax. It’s three o’clock in the morning, and they are interrupted by Pauly (Nathan Wallace), who will be marrying Gina later that day. Pauly wants marital advice from them, but it’s not exactly the right time to ask them anything, whether it’s about capons, Bobby Orr, or how you know you are making the right decision when it comes to love. A finalist in HBO’s New Playwrights Festival and made into a 2015 short film, Providence is a little charmer, with solid performances.
The best is saved for last with regular Summer Shorts participant LaBute’s provocative Appomattox, directed by Duane Boutté. LaBute is drawn to controversial topics; his New Theater Festival earlier this year included a play about a Hitler supporter, a second about a first date between a white woman and a black man, and a third dealing with a mass shooting. This play is named after one of the final battles of the Civil War, Appomattox; in an epigraph in the script, LaBute quotes Confederate general Robert E. Lee, from an 1856 letter to his wife: “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race.” LaBute also quotes singer Nina Simone: “Slavery has never been abolished from America’s way of thinking.”
The play takes place on a lovely summer day, with the black Frank (Ro Boddie) and the white Joe (Jack Mikesell) having a bro picnic, tossing around a football. Joe is excited that students at a university have decided to add $27.20 to their bill every semester as reparations for the school’s ties to slavery. Frank, however, is not impressed by the gesture, and the two friends get into a heated discussion about the reparations issue; Frank wants to end the conversation, but Joe keeps pushing it, which proves to be a not-very-wise decision. Boddie and Mikesell are excellent as racial figureheads, the former taut and handsome, quick to anger, the latter flabby and doofy, with far more boyish earnestness than adult self-awareness. Playwright, screenwriter, and director LaBute (In the Company of Men, reasons to be pretty) loves pushing buttons, and he keeps his finger down here well past any easy way out. Reparations is not a comfortable topic, especially for whites, who make up the vast majority of the Summer Shorts audience (and New York City audiences in general), so LaBute knows exactly who he’s speaking to.