Thursday, June 26, 2008

Manhattan Rep's Summerfest 2008

I spent last evening at Manhattan Repertory Theatre, which is located on 42nd Street just beyond 8th Avenue (it's in the building next door to the Duane Reade, on the 3rd floor). Artistic director Ken Wolf has been producing rotating festivals of new plays at this intimate space for several years now, and I admit that I just don't get there often enough. Summerfest 2008 is the current event at Manhattan Rep, running through August 15 (with a break over the next couple weeks for July 4th). Info about the festival is here.

Last night there were two different programs, one at 7pm and one at 9pm (that's the standard festival schedule at Manhattan Rep).

The early show--which plays again tonight and tomorrow (June 26th and 27th), and which I highly recommend--is a smart and funny one-act called Basic Training. It's written and directed by Daniel Landon, whose day job is managing the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Landon says Basic Training was inspired by stories told to him by his son, who is a petty officer in the United States Navy.

This play takes place during the first three weeks of basic training at a navy base near Lake Michigan. It centers on Phil Thompson, a kid from Paterson, New Jersey, and a Mexican immigrant named Torres Torres Torres who sleeps in the next bunk at the barracks and quickly becomes Phil's best friend. The other characters are Master Chief Mahan, who makes Lou Gossett Jr's character in An Officer and a Gentleman look like a pussycat; and Petty Officer Kowalski, the 26-year-old female who is Phil and Torres's immediate superior. She makes Mahan look like a pussycat.

I don't want to give away Basic Training's surprises, which are frequent and delightful. I will say that it's a throwback to the classic military comedy No Time for Sergeants by way of the already mentioned Officer and a Gentleman, with a hint of that classic Phil Silvers Show episode about inducting "Harry Speakup" into the army. Landon's writing is sharp and funny; the play surprised me by covering a great deal of ground in 45 minutes, from the very real reasons that young men join the United States military in the 21st century to the very real challenges of being 18 and coping with lots of new emotions and sensations for the first time. The play is well-directed and produced as well, and features a fine cast headed by the highly personable and skillful Thomas Matthews (currently a student at NYU Tisch) as Phil, with Kelvin Hale as Mahan, Karyn Plonsky as Kowalski, and Omar Portilla as Torres. Basic Training deserves a life after Summerfest 2008 and I hope it has one.

The late show, which also plays June 26 and 27, is a double bill of half-hour pieces. The first of these is Michelle Ramoni's The Misadventures of Julia Child, which centers around two original ideas: that Julia Child is/was a repressed lesbian (an unfortunate, unfunny, and unnecessary premise) and that Julia Child is being tapped to star in a Broadway musical based on the film Babette's Feast (a potentially hilarious premise). Ramoni seems to want this piece to be earnest, but what's best about it is its broad satire of show biz. I'd like to see her flesh out the Babette sections, which also feature Catherine Zeta-Jones lusting after the lead role and agreeing to be Julia Child's audition coach. It feels like there's possibly a pretty funny, pretty silly one-woman show that can emerge from this piece with further development.

Capping the evening is The Dark Land of the Sun, written and directed by Paul Hufker. Jennifer J. Hopkins stars as Sandra, an unhappy young woman who is afraid to venture out of her NYC apartment and harbors deep resentments for her husband (who moved her to the big city) and her mother (whose abuse led to a lifelong inferiority complex). Sandra passes her time by drinking and conversing with an imaginary friend named Clara. When her husband Percy (played by Matt Timme) comes home, fireworks erupt. This is Hufker's first produced play, and it definitely feels like the work of a young playwright still finding his voice. Antecedents--most notably Tennessee Williams, with a touch of Tony Kushner, I thought--are clear in the dialogue and the structure. The emotions generally ring true, though, and the conflict at the heart of the play--between a scared, scarred young woman and a husband who is no longer willing to care for her--is compelling. Timme has little to do, but Hopkins's work here feels too histrionic.

All in all, my visit to Summerfest was entertaining and I was introduced to a number of interesting and talented artists whose work I hope to see more of. The atmosphere is friendly and informal and homey, too, making this unheralded event a welcome addition to the many theatre festivals all around NYC at this time of year.

Below, a scene from Basic Training featuring Kelvin Hale, Thomas Matthews, and Omar Portilla.

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