Summer calls to mind many things, but very rarely does it conjure up a cramped studio apartment, an I Am My Own Wife level of clutter lining the various shelves and nooks. Well, lotion still trumps commotion, especially when it's so loosely connected (by light jazz, of all things), but a few bright spots in the second annual Summer Shorts festival keep things cool enough to merit the trip out to 59E59.
Not that there aren't rough spots: both series A and B begin with abysmal pieces, the former with Leslie Lyles's The Waters of March and the latter with Keith Reddin's Our Time Is Up. There are few rules for the short form, but these two manage to break both: in the first, Amy Irving is asked to juggle a near incomprehensible suicide speech about her empty, alcoholic lounge life, with a bad Portuguese nightclub act, the result of which are a lot of dropped notes and flubbed transitions. In the latter, which is even less creative, Sharon (Clara Hopkins Daniels) turns the psychoanalysis back on Calley (Janet Zarish) and ends up with a punchline that even Freud would've been hard pressed to find significance in. It doesn't help that Ms. Daniels is so passive that she seems bored to be onstage and that Ms. Zarish is so determined to be melodramatic enough for the both of them.
But from there, both programs get far better, with actual characters to back up even flimsy plots, as in Eduardo Machado's Crossing the Border (Series A), a tale of a Mexican father's struggle to turn his intellectual son into a professional athlete, the point being that brains won't get them green cards or respect. (The cramped space, unfortunately, and the lazy acting don't help to convey this message.) Michael Domitrovich's On Island (Series B) also makes a nice go of it: while his groom-with-cold-feet plot is nothing new, Leo's attempt to help his brother, George, feel more comfortable about marrying Sandi, especially in the honest recounts of their childhood memories, sells the piece.
Continuing the even distribution between programs, Neil Koenigsberg and John Augustine both turn out nicely rounded plays. On A Bench starts with explosive exaggeration: Robert (David Beck) attempts to study on a park bench as Anne (Mary Joy) loudly enjoys a black-and-white cookie and rudely interrupts. But the piece isn't about creepy busybodies: instead, by placing the bench across from the Stonewall Inn, Koenigsberg justifies Robert's aggressively antisocial behavior by his discomfort with his sexuality, and makes Anne more than a Florida retiree by giving her a younger brother who vanished in those terrible riots. PeopleSpeak operates the same way: the play very comically opens with Siobhan (the excellent Sherry Anderson) getting interrupted mid-suicide by a call from her mother (the persistently creative sort who sends musical affirmations by mail), but then using that dark comedy to turn the mirror back on our isolated, text-heavy cellular world. Even when things go overboard, with a friendly waiter (the comic Nick Westrate) "channeling" an overly moral spirit to neatly bring the play to a close, the energy is buoyant enough to keep things afloat.
Of course, the real reason to see either series is for Roger Hedden's Deep in the Hole (Series A) or Terrance McNally and Skip Kennon's mini-musical, Plaisir D'Amour (Series B). Hedden's piece is a nonstop satire of the partying life--that is, what is "too much"? Billy Hopkins builds the action slowly, going from an argument about the deadening woes of bottom-shelf liquor to a rousing game of spin the bottle and ultimately to its logical conclusion: accidentally possibly snorting anthrax. (That sentence makes more sense in context.) The whole thing is held together by the four actors, especially the carelessly suave David Ross, but it's the everyday tone that defines this piece. As for Plaisir D'Amour, it's the most polished of the eight plays, with outstanding performances from Stephanie D'Abruzzo and Jonathan C. Kaplan as they chronicle a relationship from the desperate single life to the troubled married life and eventually, with their own children now married, to the comfortable afterglow of a once passionate life. Far too many one-acts, even decent ones, come across as ultimately empty etudes, but this musically simplistic piece does for a transient comedy what Prelude & Liebestod did for drama.