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The ArtsCenter is currently offering up Ten by Ten in the Triangle, its sixth annual festival of 10-minute plays, billed as “10 plays, 10 actors, 10 minutes, 10 bucks.” It is still a bargain at twice the price; but even though these 10 shows have been hand-selected by a panel of first-class judges from over 400 entries, the final 10 do not seem to have the dual punch of brevity and content that prior years’ runs have had. Please do not misunderstand; this is a well-turned and truly entertaining evening. But apparently these playwrights could not present the stand-up-and-take-notice boom that just last year’s array carried.
Last year, the explosions went off one right after another. This year is billed as “The Year of Breaking Things,” such as laws, taboos, myths, etc; but the plays do not break things so much as they do simply adjust a few things: perspective, predictability, pacifism, to name a few. We still got the power of a few fine playwrights in this year’s top 10, but some of these plays were a touch below the gold standard we have come to expect from the previous five years.
The very first play presented fell into this latter category. In “Self-Help,” by Andrew Hinderaker of Chicago, Woman (Donnis Collins) meets Man (Estes Tarver) on what she thinks is a blind date. Trouble is, both of these poor waifs are a touch lacking in the self-esteem department, and are in “programs” to help them cope. They discover that their attraction — and there is indeed attraction — comes from their common predicament. But the writing here is a bit too long on the gnashing of teeth and self-deprecation, and a bit short on the “possibilities” side of the fence. By the time they bring themselves around, we’re okay with it; but we’re still wondering where the boom went.
We next meet “Cosmo and Gigi,” two street women created by Isabella Russell-Ides and played by Barbette Hunter and Sarah Wright, as they begin their day on their favorite park bench. We gather that the two snipe at each other due to the old saw about familiarity; but Gigi brings Cosmo around with a brand-new item she has claimed: a Red Sweater. Hunter and Wright capture well the seeming in-and-out-of-focus grasp on reality that street people, as a whole, exhibit; but the overall theme, which we may state as “If you want to mend fences, share something special,” falls a touch flat.
“Cell Mates,” written by Molly Tinsley of Ashland, Oregon, gives us a man and a woman (Cory Kraftchick and Danielle Koppel) alone in a room. They each remain in their respective cubicles, but these two telemarketers maintain touch through — what else — their cell phones. This is preferable to him, because he just can’t deal; but she wants more out of the relationship and so, much to his dismay, she makes a more physical appearance. Kraftchick captures the neurosis of our guy well, but Koppel makes this one work, with a sweet but cajoling character that gets her fellah on board, so to speak.
As the one to bring us up short, “Bluff” works pretty well, but only because the shift from bad to worse really is a shocker. Father (LaMark Wright) confronts daughter (Collins), who has come over to his house in her bathrobe and PJ’s in the middle of the night, when she is supposed to be living at her aunt’s house, since the death of her mom. What ensues is a fairly commonplace argument between the man who has given up and his spitfire daughter, about when are you going to get off your can and start living again. The catalyst to disaster is the gun, which Dad whipped out at the sound of her intrusion. He says he can’t cope and doesn’t want to live; she gives back “tough love,” hands him the pistol and tells him to go ahead and end it all, it’s better than going on like this. Does he call her bluff? Only the viewer can say.
The first set closes with a terrific comedy about four old pals who have convened for a night of poker. “Helluva Poker Face,” by Christopher Lockheardt, gives us only one hand, but it becomes the be-all and end-all of the evening’s game. Cam (Greg Hohn) raises all he has on the table in the face of what looks like a slam-dunk for his opponent (Kraftchick). But the other two split down the middle: one (Tarver) says “You gotta call” because the only hand Cam can have that will actually win is a million-to-one shot; the other, Mr. Psychology (Rick Lonon), says Cam has to have it or there is no way he would bet it all. Cam’s character says not a word this entire show, but he does have one helluva poker face. We have to take this one, for both comedy and characterization, as the best of the five we see in Act I.
Act II gives us bookends of plays about theater. The first, “Friendship 101” by Chris Shaw Swanson (who wrote last year’s “The List”), shows us a playwright (Sarah Wright), her Muse (Collins), and two characters, Woman 1 (Hunter) and Woman 2 (Ginny Linden), engaging in trying to create a play about friendship between women. Trouble is, our Muse wants Drama, and our playwright wants Substance. It’s a winner-take-all battle….
“Oh Happy Day” by Rich Orloff, in his fourth year at Ten by Ten in the Triangle, tells a terrific tale about the eighth anniversary of a marriage. Hubby (Tarver) comes home to Homemaker (Wright), after one long day of dealing with The Huns, the members of the U.S. Congress. The two gay men share beer and the day’s events, but this chat is terrifically like just another comfortable old married couple. We find genuinely real characters and amazingly familiar family life in this play, even though each, in his own way, is beating his head against the wall, trying to get the outside world to recognize them for who they are. Terrific acting brings this play to seismic proportions with simple but heartfelt emotion.
There are parts of “Back Roads,” by Stephanie Walker of L.A., which remind us of “Bluff” in Act I. Mom (Linden) lost Dad only three months ago. Her daughter (Koppel), who has been driving up until a moment ago — of gas — now searches frantically for her cell phone, which is, conveniently or inconveniently as you may choose, missing. The duo spars verbally as the younger tries to flag down a passing car, without success. It isn’t until Mom remembers that her daughter lost her husband, but had kids to take care of that brought her through, that she remembers that she has one she needs to take care of, too.
“Merrily, Merrily,” written by Kelly Younger, presents us a seemingly unsolvable problem. They’ve only been married three years, but Howard (Lonon) lovingly presented Janet (Hunter) with a membership to Curves, and she thought he was telling her she was fat. To even the score, she lost 36 pounds. Now, she wants adventure (this time in the form of whitewater rafting) and he longs for his easy chair. Is it time for this unmatched match to split? Can his little blue pill save the day? This one is comic and well acted, but the end is pretty trite.
To close the evening — as is their wont — The ArtsCenter saves what is arguably the best for last. “Scripted” is penned by Mark Levine (in his fifth year of Ten by Ten). The other of the theatrical bookends, this work opens as the alarm clock goes off in just another couple’s bedroom. The real alarm for Elaine (Koppel) comes when Simon (Hohn) finds a script by the clock, and they realize it is a script for their coming day. It proves so because everything she says — even in the face of this new conundrum — already appears on the page. They fear disaster, but take their fate in their hands and read it. It’s just another day. Is that good or bad? And can they change the written word? It turns out that there’s a pink rewrite sheet enclosed….
Of the 10 shows presented, this reviewer narrows the candidates for Best of the Evening to three. I personally can relate to “Helluva Poker Face”; I’ve sat at that table. But the next two vie for top honors. I’m not all that sure that I can definitively say which should take home the Blue Ribbon. I’m particularly partial to “Oh Happy Day,” because of these two fantastically drawn characters; but for a single whoppingly fantastic idea for a one-act play, “Scripted” seems the better choice. I’m going to stick my neck out and stay with “Oh Happy Day.” If you can get writing this good paired with two fine actors like these, you’ve got one “helluva” statement to make.
The ArtsCenter presents Ten by Ten in the Triangle Thursday-Saturday, July 19-21, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, July 22, at 3 p.m. at 300-G E. Main St., Carrboro, North Carolina. $10. 919/929-2787 or via etix at the presenter's site. Note: There will be chance to share a glass of wine with the playwrights, cast, crew, after the July 21st performance. The ArtsCenter: http://www.artscenterlive.org/index.php?a=Theatre&b=Current%20Productions&id=174.