On Saturday Gothamist took last week’s advice and went to Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Marathon 2005. This festival has a long and honorable tradition going back to the 70s, attracting top playwrights and actors, and although not all of the four plays in this first of 3 parts of the marathon were equally enjoyable, the evening altogether showed that EST is still doing a great job of nurturing and producing great performances.
The highlight of the first play, John Guare’s Madagascar, is unquestionably Amy Love as Carrie, a woman who marries into the Madagascar “medical mafia” of Madagascar, Illinois. The play starts with her addressing the audience as though they are browsing at her yard sale; she appears very perky and happy as she describes what’s for sale (the set is mostly bare), but gradually her inability to be quiet means that she tells some dark stories associated with those objects. That’s the trajectory of the play as a whole, too – it just keeps getting more disturbing. It’s quite long, and would maybe be better expanded even further out of the constraints of the one-act formula, but Love’s performance, at least, is great.
Where Madagascar feels like it has much more than a single act in it, the generically named The Airport Play, by Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, seems like just a scene; it’s a good scene, but it definitely leaves you wanting more. Ann Talman is Anne, a woman reading in the airport who bristles when a stranger (Edward Hajj as Hari) wants to talk to her. He eventually overcomes her animosity and imparts some life wisdom to her, but just then her plane is leaving, and that’s about that. The actors play their roles with true feeling, but it’s not quite enough to overcome the impression that the piece doesn’t really go anywhere. The other two plays, however, are more well-balanced. Mr. Morton Waits For His Bus, by Warrant Leight, has a young cop (played with excellent nervous energy by Ean Sheehy) who has to take care of a just-deceased old man in a seventh-floor walk-up on the fourth of July. Family competition and heritage issues that mirror those in Madagascar come up here, for the officer’s father was a cop too, and as the younger man waits for the medical van to come, he gives his dad a call and then, under the influence of Percodan and whiskey, meets the owner of the apartment. The play leaves you with questions and concerns, but in a good way.
The family in Leslie Lyles’ The Great Pretenders vies with the Madagascars for the prize of most dysfunctional clan Gothamist has seen on stage recently (oh, wait, there was The Pillowman…). Amy Irving (Steven Spielberg’s ex, of Carrie, Yentl and Crossing Delancey film fame), skillfully plays washed-up Anna alongside Bruce MacVittie’s tough-guy Bobby, Anna’s former husband. We’re in an airport again, as the two are on their way to Ohio for their son’s funeral. That son, Jackie (Haskell King), walks on at intervals to tell his sad story. It seems Lyles may have been inspired by actual news events; Jackie mentions that the Times wrote about him before his death, and the shocking tale of a woman who beat her baby to death shapes the play’s dark conclusion. Either way, the play is definitely well grounded in the reality of complicated relationships as Anna and Bobby reminisce about their first years together and wonder what went wrong and when. Lyles hints at obvious and not-so-obvious answers, so that when you leave you’re still mulling it over, which is always a good sign.
Last year EST didn’t produce a marathon; after that hiatus it seems to be back as strong as ever, if the first part of the series is any indication. You can see it until June 11, or opt for one of the other series; either way make sure to get there to see for yourself why the company and the marathon are such a great off-Broadway tradition.
Details: Series A is playing on June 2, 4, 7, and 10 at 8 PM and June 5 and 11 at 3 PM. Series B starts May 31 at 8PM and runs through June 19; Series C runs June 14-26. EST is at 549 W. 52; tickets online are at Theatermania.