Watching an evening of short pieces by quirky playwright Christopher Durang is like watching a circus high-wire act performed without a net. Durang is an acquired taste — he is outrageous, absurd and self-consciously crazy.
So it is rather ambitious for Ashland Contemporary Theatre to offer "7 Shorts" by Christopher Durang, a collection of seven unrelated vignettes about the nature of theater, writing, family relationships and the quandary of mismatched socks.
What: "7 Shorts," written by Christopher Durang and produced by Ashland Contemporary Theatre
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, March 14-16
Where: Grizzly Peak Winery, 1600 E. Nevada St.
Tickets: $15 at Paddington Station in Ashland, Grocery Outlet in Medford, online at ashlandcontemporarytheatre.org or call 541-646-2971.
Durang's plays have to be performed at a brisk pace to make them work. Stop to analyze what's happening on stage, and the effect is lost. "7 Shorts" is directed by ACT's Producing Artistic Director Evalyn Hansen, who understands the concept. Some of the pieces work beautifully; others don't — mainly when Hansen's pacing falters.
The evening opens with "Mrs. Sorken," presenting her "comments on theater" with a mixture of pseudo-definition (such as relating the etymology of drama to Dramamine — "to relieve anxiety"), stream of consciousness and cliché. Durang's character (played by Mabrie Ormes) is drawn from all the pretentious middle-class matrons of his New Jersey roots and he is not kind.
In "Business Lunch at the Russian Tea Room-1995," a playwright, Chris (Jeff Golden), receives a call from his agent (Judith Rosen). She has set up a meeting with a Hollywood producer (Vanessa Hopkins) on a film project. Durang takes potshots at pushy agents, neurotic film producers and even the surly waiters (Archie Koenig) at one of New York's sacrosanct literary lunching locales. The piece is funny — funnier if you know how close it is to reality — and succeeds here because Golden, Rosen, Hopkins and Koenig are believable.
The vignette that follows, "Woman Stand-up," doesn't quite come off. Lia Dugal plays a neurotic stand-up comic whose thankless routine is to repeat unfunny, self-deprecating comments. Dugal is effective even though Durang gives her little to work with.
"Funeral Parlor" nudges the bounds of good taste — which is, of course, what Durang set out to do. As Susan (Vanessa Hopkins) stands by her late husband's casket, she is accosted by Marcus (Richard Royce), a pushy mourner, urging her to demonstratively give vent to her grief. Marcus is quite crazy and we watch as Susan becomes nearly hysterical trying to extricate herself from his attentions.
"Nina in the Morning" is Durang's broad parody of an angst-ridden, upper-class family. Fading beauty, promiscuity, child abuse, incest, not to mention servant problems — Durang covers it all. Rosen shines here as the narcissistic matriarch with some over-the-top help from Mike Evans as the narrator, David DeMoss as the various adult children, Koenig as a long-suffering butler and Dugal as a maid.
"Medea" is Durang's loopy contemporary take on the classic Greek tragedy. Medea (Jeannine Grizzard) is in despair because Jason (DeMoss) has left her for Debbie. As a Greek chorus (Dugal, Ormes and Krystal Brewer) comments, switching rapidly from ancient-Greek sounding declamations to advertising blurbs of the '90s, the plot thickens. With the help of the Messenger (Koenig) and an Angel/Ex Machina (Royce), Debbie is dumped, Jason returns and, yes, Medea's children are saved.
The last short play of the evening, "Diversions," dates from Durang's days as an undergraduate at Harvard. Playwrights often have youthful work that they simply can't abandon. This is one of those works.
A distraught man about to jump (Koenig), a nun who tries to save him (Ormes), a bystander (Peter Quince) and a cop (Conrad Gardner) all line up on a ledge. The cop falls. Another cop (Joshua Hendrickson) arrests the survivors. The ensuing trial involves the bystander's wife (Brewer), her lover, who is also the prosecuting attorney (Royce), a judge (Evans), his clerk (DeMoss) and a hysterical witness (Dugal). The ACT ensemble gave this one a good try, but this short play gets entirely too silly. Durang's humor is forced and the piece goes on and on and on.
ACT took a daring leap with "7 Shorts." Durang is an icon of late 20th century American theater. (His play "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," a parody of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," won a Tony Award for Best Play in 2013.) But his mixture of the absurd, the crazy and the crass is hard to pull off. ACT tries hard and almost succeeds.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.