Keep your sunny side up

Vital Signs

A festival of new works
Vital Theatre Company
432 W. 42nd St. (592-0129)
Equity showcase (closes Nov. 19)
Review by Adrienne Onofri

The fourth weekend in Vital Theatre Company's six-week showcase of previously unproduced short plays featured The Encounter by Will Ryman, Heart Problems by Catherine Gillet, David Folwell's Afraid of Heights, Glitch by Jim Doyle, and Doug Held's Call and Dash. (That's the order in which they were performed, but not the order in which they were listed in the program. Furthermore, the cast lists did not identify the actors by their roles, so audience members had to scan the bios-which included every performer in the festival-to find out who was playing whom. )

Housekeeping details aside, the program had two good plays, Heart Problems and Afraid of Heights, which happen to be thematically similar: two strangers meet; one is high-spirited, the other dejected; the former sets the latter straight on the "meaning of life." In Heart Problems, the two strangers are seatmates on a transcontinental flight. The younger woman is taking a solo ski vacation and getting over a breakup; the older woman shows her the bright side via a manicure and a succession of one-liners. Playwright Gillet shows she knows her way around a zinger: a character proclaims that "career outdoor" types like ski instructors are just "very healthy homeless people" and calls stores such as IKEA and Bed, Bath & Beyond "theme-park superstores." The play, directed by Roberta Wells-Famula, is self-consciously glib but was redeemingly entertaining - thanks to the perfect pairing of Tracy Lee Bell and Mary Coburn. Bell was loopy yet sympathetic; Coburn aced her repartee.

In the Brandi J. Smith-directed Afraid of Heights, Anthony (Jens Rasmussen), a young man clothed in shorts and tank top, spreads his cheer to a suit-and-overcoat-wearing guy (Michael Dufault) sharing a bench on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. The hook here is a plot twist: while the uptight guy and the audience are led to believe that Anthony is a mental patient, it turns out he's an AIDS patient who is joyfully asymptomatic because of his protease inhibitors. This could be considered the third wave of AIDS plays-the first being pleas for tolerance, the second pleas for a cure, and this one a celebration of survival. This is the first to be heard onstage about "victory" over the epidemic-and the play's commendable for that timely precedence. Otherwise, it's not great, but promising enough.

As for the rest of the program: The Encounter, directed by Maryna Harrison, is too low-key to inspire much feeling. Discussing a possible UFO sighting with a friend, Ed (Alex Hansen) decides his vision was actually his deceased mother looking down on him-a nice idea, but with no sense of place (another thing missing from the program: the plays' settings) and no background or personality development for the characters, it doesn't mean much.

Glitch, directed by Heidi Shurak, is a one-joke sketch about a high-tech car, with Felicia Scarangello playing almost the same (male) role that she did in last summer's Icons & Outcasts. The last play of the evening, directed by Ovi Vargas, was the uninteresting Call and Dash, in which a quartet of overgrown frat boys pull a prank at the local zoo. It's overheated and under-funny.

(Also featuring Jeff Dawson, Michael Morisi, Terry Maratos, Michael Brandt, Will Erat, Sam Hurlbut and Ted Rodenborn)

Box Score:

Writing: 1

Directing: 1

Acting: 1

Set: 1

Costumes: 1

Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2000 Adrienne Onofri