It's not entirely clear who Ensemble Studio Theatre is hustling, but if you saw Marathon 2009: Series A and weren't impressed, that's because they saved the best for Series B. These five plays aren't just comparatively better, either--they're the strongest short plays to premiere this year. They all play it comparatively safe, but each piece finds a nice riff on a different theatrical style, from the mania of "Little Duck" to the comic nihilism of "Sundance," from the deep-seated sorrow of America's war wounds in "Daughter" to the uncomfortable family relationships in "Blood From a Stoner" or just the sweet, day-by-day humor of "Carol & Jill."
How good? Christopher Durang might want to start taking tips from Billy Aronson, after seeing the office politics of "Little Duck" in action. What starts simply enough--Holly (Jane Pfitsch) seducing her boss, Robert (Paul Bartholomew), to get a chance to work with her idols on developing a children's book into an animated series--quickly leaps to absurdism. The star artist, RJ (Steven Boyer), doesn't like the direction Dr. Jill (Julie Leedes) gives him, nor does Anne (Geneva Carr), a socially awkward genius of a writer who can't take criticism and can't hug a person without grabbing their breasts. By the show's climax, duck puppets are being used in an unsanitary fashion, feet are being fetishized, and if they weren't working on a children's show, there'd probably be an orgy center stage.
How strong? Cassandra Medley's "Daughter" kept tears in my eyes, leaping around in time just enough to constantly remind us--and Alma (Gayle Samuels), who is literally haunted by Petronia Paley's direction--of the human price of war. To that end, Kaliswa Brewster makes for a perfect poster child--she's beautiful and funny as Monique, and it hurts to see her face swaddled in bandages one moment, beaming the next as she celebrates her engagement, and then dark as her mother announces to her congregation--despite her friends Louise and Viola (Lynne Matthew and Natalie Carter) trying to hold her back--that her daughter has committed suicide.
How sweet? The two best friends of Leslie Ayvazian's "Carol & Jill" (played by Ayvazian and Janet Zarish) are so natural that even their casual remarks are explosively funny--and that's before Carol starts talking about how she's tired of "the responsibility of the erection." It's not so much about whether or not these two would ever give up their husbands to be lesbians so much as it is about the awkward cluelessness they have when trying to figure out who would be the butch one: "There are roles, right?" Director Daniella Topol is at her best when working with richly backstoried characters, so she's at her best here, drawing out every little half-smile, and squeezing every ounce of meaning from a body that frowns as it turns away in disappointment.
Even the weaker pieces of the night, M. Z. Ribalow's "Sundance" and Jeanne Dorsey's "Blood From a Stoner," have their own unique strengths. At times, the former comes across as a Western version of "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," as Wild Bill Hickock (Richmond Hoxie) and Jesse James (David Deblinger) discourse on the merits of their particular brands of violence, all while a cowardly barkeep (Ean Sheehy) tries to philosophize his way through the day. It's played to the hilt, which makes all the difference--especially in comparison to Dorsey's play. There, the father (David Margulies) can't sell his miserly mix of love and resentment, his daughter (Patricia Randell) seems to have no reason to stick around beyond being snide, and the waiter (Thomas Lyons) can't qualify all of his exposition. And yet it still works--it's just that this moral-heavy play isn't for everyone.
Of course, not every play has to be for everyone--in fact, in a one-act play festival, they generally won't. The fact that so much of Marathon 2009 Series B was satisfying to this one critic speaks volumes to the overall quality of the evening. It's a cliched line, but it works in this instance: run and see this year's Marathon.