Nine Short Plays
The Drilling Company
The 78th Street Theatre Lab
236 West 78th St. (212/414-7717)
Equity showcase (closes Apr. 28)
Review by David Mackler

The Drilling Company's stated modus operandi is to pick a theme, solicit submissions, "listen, argue, think, discuss," and choose. With Paper, an extremely precious (but not unworkable) concept, they assembled a group of nine plays, eight of which are very impressed with their own importance. The sole saving grace is that they were very well-produced, and for the most part, engagingly acted.

The playwrights seem to have been left to their own impulses on how to use the theme, and the beam of light shining out of the collection is Dana Slamp's Scott and Zelda Get a Pet (directed by Nancy Saklad), wherein the Fitzgeralds get a female stenographer. Zelda presents her to Scott, but she is transcribing into her machine (and onto the paper roll) only what Zelda has to say. As the couple bickers, it's revealed that Scott's fame is the result of putting his name on her stories, but nothing here is what it seems. In its allotted time, the play is well-developed, includes an effective plot twist, and was well-acted by Fredric Marco, Colleen Cosgrove as the pet, and especially Suzie Devoe as Zelda.

Aside from that, innovation and intelligence were not well-represented, and most of the playwrights stuck with fairly obvious variations on the theme, or forced comic circumstances. In What's Left, by Neil Olson, directed by Richard Harden, three surviving children need to decide what's to be done about the unfinished manuscript left behind when their father, a successful author, has died. And there's also the letters dad left behind for each of them. Paper is less important than the family dynamic, which is mostly stated bluntly. Danielle Quisenberry made the most of her role, handling the unsurprising revelations with class.

A couple of the plays were mildly amusing, if essentially ungratifying. P. Kevin Strader's Dear Diary (directed by Carol Halstead) had Stephen Bittrich scribbling his absurd fantasies and paranoia mostly in voice-over, and proved that Jennifer Love Hewett is always good for a laugh. P. Seth Bauer's Karma Cookie (directed by Hamilton Clancy) added up to less than the sum of its parts with two British laborers (Nick Hetherington and Phillip Douglas) intent on following instructions on stray bits of paper. It manages to incorporate fish and chips, Westminster Abbey, fox-hunting, a rowboat, and the philosophical conundrum that if the fortune in your cookie says "Duck," do you?

Investments Get Lost In a Ticker Tape Parade (by Paul Siefken, directed by Mark Voelpel) is a better title than play, only saved by Sally Mae Dunn's appealing performance as a woman who is confused by her inability to relinquish her boyfriend's "Dear Jane" letter. Scars by Renée Flemings (directed by Gregory Simmons) has a northern white journalist (Dan Teachout) searching for the Southern black woman who was depicted in a photograph of a young girl being tormented during a civil-rights uprising. Her daughter (Karen Kitz) is resistant, and wants all those pictures burned. It feels more important than it plays, with a surprise twist that is no surprise, and a double twist that is even less so. On Paper (by Brian Dykstra, directed by Catherine Miller) is lifted by Nicholas Gray and David Sinkus playing off each other as they spout semi-gibberish ("We suck no hind tit in the brains department") as they try to convince a business owner (Stacy Wallace) to relinquish her pollution rights, but they won't commit any agreement to paper (too easy to have it come back to haunt you). Dominic Orlando's Paper Trail has a librarian (Melora Griffis) hounded by a representative of the Council on Information Awareness (Bruce Faulk) for a patron's record, but it is done in by too-obvious farce, and a performance so overtly FUNNY that was almost completely UN. Molly Rice's The Birth of Paper (directed by Rob A. Wilson, performed by Hamilton Clancy), seemingly an ode to communication and writing, is more the theory of paper pasted onto performance-art theory, and it required audience participation. Paper deserves better.

But the achievements of scenic designer Tom Gleeson, lighting designer Jerry Browning, and sound designer Michael Graetzer cannot be underpraised. The set, which turned the black-box theater white with walls covered in white paper, and all furniture (except the writing desk stage center) painted white, positively glowed under the delicate, subtle lighting. Shadows of blinds appeared unobtrusively, as did color to reflect mood. Sound effects gave substance to the flimsiest premise (the diarist scribbling, a boat at sea, a character running around off-stage). The framing was exquisite, the work within mostly blank.

Also with Rob A. Wilson, Bradford Olson, Kelly Jeanne Grant.

Box Score:

Writing: 0
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Sets: 2
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2003 Jade Esteban Estrada