REVIEW: Little Boxes

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Stage West offers three streaming short plays, set up as video conferencing conversations, in October Playlets.

Jan Farrington | TheaterJones 

Stage West gathered us round the electronic campfire this weekend for a streaming of short-short plays by three rising playwrights: Ken Urban, Steph Del Rosso, and Craig Pospisil. Each one written during the Current Chaos, the October Playlets throw a lot of topics onto the flames, from death and loss to bad breakups, angry kids, marital taste in wines, student-teacher ethics…and what happens when a therapist needs therapy.

And somewhat surprisingly, each mini-story comes out on the side of comedy. The situations aren’t intrinsically LOL funny (though there are plenty of laughs), but in each case, in ways twisty and unexpected, someone we’ve begun to care about in the last 10 minutes comes out well…or at least better. A cheering experience, especially if paired with your own glass of vino.

In short, this 50 minutes of time-capsuled 2020 theatrical imagination proved well worth watching, with vivid performances captured by director Tiffany Nichole Greene.

In Playlet 1, Ken Urban’s Intro to Fiction (Virtual), Steven Pounders plays college English prof Ryan to Vero Maynez’ writing student Clara, who meets him on Zoom (or some such) for his critique of a short story she’s turned in. “God, I hate this,” says Ryan, and we come to know he’s not just talking about the problems of virtual teaching. Their encounter over the rough draft of her story makes him seem angry (and possibly unethical). She’s confused, but stands her artistic ground as he makes demands. Why is this story hitting him hard? One character keeps control, another heads for a meltdown. They meet in an emotional middle, with both revealing the shaky underpinnings of their pandemic lives — neither is nearly as “together” as they tried to seem.

Without spoiling the ending, what might have been an ugly quarter-hour ends with warmth and compliments, and a bit of hope that “all this” might have genuine bright spots. Both Pounders and Maynez (who is Chicago-based, another perk of casting an online production) create entirely real characters within the few life-of-a-Mayfly minutes they have. I always want to see more of the versatile Pounders — and will now add Maynez to my “actors to watch” list.

Playlet 2, Craig Pospisil’s Boredom, Fear and Wine, pairs Stage West veterans Dana Schultes and Mark Shum (and its current leaders) as Jess and Harper. This time the online meet-cute is a therapy session. Both are at home, agreeing they feel “trapped.” Jess misses the “commas” in her life that gave the days structure: subway, work, subway, home. Harper says he’s “lost in the wilderness” like the Donner Party. Jess thinks he’s going a bit dark: “The grocery stories are still open,” she dryly reminds him.

This being 2020, we know the relative calm can’t last — and sure enough, innocent-seeming topics (like the choice of wine) are tossed around until they explode in mid-air with tears and anger, pills, more wine…and a recommendation that someone might need to get a therapist? What’s going on, here? Shum and Schultes are hilarious: he a bouncing ball of emotions, she cool and steady (but with a grim side-eye that foretells an abrupt ending). After a while, you will see this one coming…but it’s pretty funny all the same.

In Hey Stranger, Steph Del Rosso adds a third character to this night of twosomes…and she, the mouthy high school striver (bitingly funny Carrie Viera), makes all the difference. Eve (NYC-based Liz Tancredi) adjusts a flame-red dress, prepping for a video meet with Gideon (Mitchell Stephens), whose text drew her to “see” him again. (They’ve been apart after what seems an unhappy break-up.) She has wine in hand; and he, after inviting her to a “happy hour” thing, slugs a big ol’ cappuccino. “It’s only three o’clock,” he clucks. You can just tell….

Eve complains of the “infuriatingly generic loneliness” of her life, lost in the mass of pandemic lives equally pedestrian in their solitude. Gideon, restlessly shifting, doesn’t “catch any of that.” Turns out, he wants to ask Eve a professional favor. Didn’t he miss her? “I missed the memory of you I had in my head,” he says, smooth and sure his romantic line will hit.

Enter Zoe, the A-list high schooler Eve tutors. She’s working on an essay about Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and wants to know if “rando dude” is staying on for their session. You’re a tutor now? Gideon asks Eve. “No, Eve is a scholar,” Zoe answers. She’s not having it.

“Your generation…” Gideon starts, and Zoe catches up quick: “My generation is going to save your generation’s ass.” The playwright cleverly arms Zoe with a thesis statement (“Solitude is gendered”) that becomes more relevant by the moment. Men, she asserts, can go off into the woods and have purpose: they’re philosophers, they’re Thoreau, they’re finding themselves. But women are allowed to live only through relationships. If “she” is in the wood, who is she “mothering, appeasing, attracting”?

We see the wheels start to turn in Eve’s slightly buzzed head. (Tancredi’s wide eyes and shifting expressions are a treat.) Will she reach out for the feckless Gideon (Stephens is admirably empty-headed), or hug her lonely self into a sense of being and purpose? It’s a big idea to winkle into a 15-minute play, but playwright Del Rosso pulls it off, quite shocking us with the depth of our happiness at how things come out.

Kudos to all the production and technical team, and to Stage West for trying something playful and a bit different. More, please.