When it comes to the 10-minute play, I admit to being in an ambivalent minority. As a dramatist, I'm supportive of any venue for playwrights; if nothing else, 10-minute play festivals allow a larger number of writers to see their work performed. But as a member of the audience, I find the form largely unsatisfying. A sixth of an hour is, for most writers, simply too short a time in which to create forceful characters, place them in a compelling dramatic context, and wrestle with what William Faulkner deemed the only thing worth writing about: the human heart in conflict with itself.
It's true that Thornton Wilder wrote dozens of short plays, many of which fit snugly into the miniature format. But using Wilder as an example is a case of the exception proving the rule. Wilder's minis are blazingly theatrical, and contain some of his sharpest observations on the inner workings of the American mind, just as some of Tennessee Williams's sketches reveal a mind dazed with love for the poetry of everyday voices. Without comparable dramatic gifts behind them, the 10-minute drama is the theatrical equivalent of the poetry slam; it takes exceptional talent to mine gold from what is, essentially, a parlor trick.
So it is with the new ArtsCenter omnibus "Ten by Ten in the Triangle," which contains one haunting piece of extraordinary dimension; one certifiable comic gem; one duologue whose aching humanity just edges it past cliché; and one very funny (and vaguely troubling) black comedy.
The rest are highly variable. The evening's most ambitious work is also in many ways its least satisfying. In "Deal with This," UNCG professor Mark Smith-Soto attempts to anatomize a single moment — the murder of a silently pleading Jew by his conflicted Nazi guard whose commanding officer observes from a distance — by giving voice to the thoughts of its participants. It's a curiously literary conceit, and the playwright's heavy reliance on simile fixes it as such. A Shaw or a Welty might have made a superb short story from this notion, but it doesn't strike me as sound dramaturgy. (The costumes don't help; both the guard and his superior officer look less like S.S. men than bwana on safari.)
A few of the plays just miss glory, such as Allison Williams's "Miss Kentucky," a rueful/comic mother-daughter colloquy, which as played by Nichole Taylor and Eryn Makepeace, is occasionally unintelligible. Others, like Mark Harvey Levine's "The Kiss," tease at ambivalent emotions but can go no further. In "Prelude to 35" Seth Kramer gives his female character the odd funny line ("Who invites someone they're dating to a briss?") but makes her male counterpart so annoyingly dopey you can't imagine why any woman, let alone this one, would want to be with him for the rest of her life. And David Byron Hudson's oddball performance sinks an already leaky skiff.
Only one of the plays lacks a point: recent North Carolina School of the Arts graduate Cedric Hayman's "#2," an extended potty joke more dire than offensive, unless the sight of three actors with their pants down haggling over a missing roll of toilet paper is your idea of boulevard farce. At a certain point, one of Hayman's characters exclaims, "Wait a minute — this is stupid!" thereby writing my review for me.
The evening's finale is a wee little allegorical misfire by Julia Pearlstein called "blue sky," which I take to be the playwright's requiem for the faceless dead at the World Trade Center, but which is full of ready-made profundities like "On a day like this, words seem to have two meanings... or none at all." Pearlstein takes her full 10 minutes attempting to say what Thornton Wilder managed much more heartbreakingly with a single speech in Our Town. This leads to dialogue such as this exchange, between a man and a woman meeting for the first (and presumably last) time, and which sounds like early Albee strained through a colander:
SHE: "They look joyful — so joyful — so — "
If the playwright weren't so earnest, you'd almost take that for prize-winning collegiate satire.
Which brings us to the quartet mentioned above. In "The Illusion of You," Patrick Cleary manages to make something sweetly edifying from the mismatching of a drag queen hospice volunteer and a B-movie siren who is now an embittered cancer patient. Although you can see the revelations coming long before Cleary makes them, his dialogue and sense of character are so perfectly pitched that the enterprise moves easily between the sharply observed ("Glamour isn't easy. If it was, everyone could do it") and the touching without dipping into bathos. Michael Rollins and Jane Hallstrom play Cleary's odd couple like two actors who know they've been given the roles of their lives, by which I mean to perfection.
Even better is the acerbic "Heart Smart," Linda Eisenstein's wicked yet oddly moving variation on the fateful meeting of wife and mistress. Hallstrom proves a comedian of divine spark who can ring more laughs out of a single line like "Don't you dare" than some actors could manage with an entire script. (Technical aside: why is the Other Woman carrying a bouquet of nondescript posies when the wife clearly refers to the flowers she's brought to the hospital as tulips?) Mike Folie's "Dust" is similarly disposed towards its bickering married couple (Steve Scott and Nichole Taylor), but its humor is altogether more loving. It's nothing, really — a trifle based on the perpetual incompatibility of the sexes — but so true to the complexities of any relationship it seems, ultimately, lifted from life.
Best of all is John Yearley's shattering roundelay "A Low-lying Fog." To say a little of the basic situation would be saying too much. Instead, let me note that this anguished, elegiac twin soliloquy by two brothers displays a control of vivid dramatic imagery, a command of elliptical dialogue, and a feeling for the infinite resonances of the human heart that is as astonishing as it is rare, and is beautifully encapsulated in the compassionate performances of Steve Scott and Larry Evans.
The direction of the various pieces (by Thomas "TeKay" King, Taibi Magar, and Lynden Harris) is generally crisp and well observed without detracting from the playwrights' individual voices. Christopher Salazar and Ann Marie Thomas, two actors I have not mentioned previously, are no less impressive for that omission.
The ArtsCenter presents "Ten by Ten in the Triangle" Thursday-Saturday, July 17-19, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, July 20, at 3 p.m. in The ArtsCenter, 300-G E. Main St., Carrboro, North Carolina. $10. 919/929-2787 or ArtsCenter@aol.com. http://www.artscenterlive.org/theater.html.