I think a major problem I have is that I have an intense desire for playwrights to not rely on the conventions of the art, but I also get agitated when playwrights break away from them completely. Somewhere, undoubtedly, there is a happy medium, but it is likely too small for most authors to locate. I need to find it within myself to be more accepting of the works that the more knowledgeable – at least in terms of selecting material – and simply find a way to address what did and did not work for me rather than judging whether the plays are any good at all.
Another important lesson learned is that it is nearly impossible to tell a complete story in a ten-minute play. While there was a statement that these plays would be more than scenes, that is how many felt; some seemed to be little more than sketches with larger aspirations. Worse, because there isn't a sense of totality, many of them leave no lasting impression. Still, there is a similarity between the short story and the (extremely) short play – one cannot read a lot of them at once without feeling burned out. In that case, it doesn't matter if they are good or bad. And it is here that it makes me marvel at the stamina of the teachers who have to wade through the much worse writing of students with great frequency.
At any rate, I finished The Best Ten-Minute Plays 2008 for Three of More Actors first because it just had to be back at the library shortly after check out. For some reason, the effort to renew it gained a single day of leeway. Even more interesting, more than two weeks after it had been returned, a fine appeared for returning it late. Except that it wasn't returned late. And if it were, that fine would have shown up immediately. My take away from this is that it is a cursed book (or at least the local copy is); check it out at your own risk.
The book opens up with Kathleen Warnock's The Adventures of..., and despite it having the hints of coming from an honest place it tried to hard to have a clever ending to break up the obvious progression along the way. George Freek's Antarctica actually bothered me because it was neither funny nor clever, and I was quite positive that both were intended. Ian August's How to Survive in Corporate America (A Manual in Eight Steps) was entertaining, but it read like one of the fantasy sequence instructional films from That '70s Show (1998-2006) – and given that I have seen less than ¼ of the episodes, I'm somewhat amazed that this is the association I made while reading it.
Things get a little better with In the Trap by Carl L. Williams. While embracing quite a few of the conventions of a modern comedic play (it could be argued that it is an overgrown sketch that cared enough to give the characters some definition), it tries to have a point without insisting that it is making a point. There is something refreshing about the self-defeating protagonist who makes good only in minor steps, and those are motivated by the petty concerns that we often try to dress up as noble – and he makes no effort to do as much.
Then things bottom out with Moon Man by Jami Brandli. It is ponderous. It is pretentious without having any possible foundation for being so. Worst of all, it refuses to have anything to say other than that people can be lonely. This play may appeal to some, but I found it to be a waste of time. More to the point, I think it provides no roles that an actor should be excited about performing.
Mark Larmbeck's October People is not quite a whole play (though it is the one depicted on the cover of the book). Instead, it feels like a scene whittled down from a larger story with a character deposited in to keep the characters from reaching any kind of quick, reasonable resolution to their relationship. It is rather well written, but it feels like an insiders look at the world in which actors (and people who rely on the entertainment industry) live. That is a convention that I think doesn't translates well outside of (the North American) hubs like Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver, or Toronto.
The Other Shoe by Lisa Soland wasn't poorly written, but it seemed too desperate to make its point. I would argue that if one is writing a short play, it shouldn't be overly concerned with addressing the author's agenda. Instead, it should be primarily concerned with making sure that a complete story is told in the limited time afforded it. This is something that Paola Soto Hornbuckle got right in The Perfect Red. It feels like a complete story – and is the the only play in the collection to have multiple scenes. It is also surprisingly dark, yet at the same time it manages to be accessible to a general audience. I would not imagine that many people would stage it because it does require better than modest production values but does not run long enough to justify it being the only play running on the stage. But there is something to it.
Gina Gionfriddo's Squalor was more than a little weird, but it still works as a brief play. It was extremely contemporary in its references, but while that is impressive if it is produced immediately, it also serves to date it. It did have some rather good lines that showcase Gionfriddo's ability to bring wit and levity to a play without defusing the progression of the story. My favorites are:
Marnie: "Quit? You think this is hamburgers and hair appointments?
You can't quit a war."
Mike: "I'm thirsty and I have a dick." (Trust me, it has real meaning
Don Nigro's Three Turkeys Waiting for Corncobs is one of those plays that really relies on the conventions, especially the off-beat ones, of the modern play. It is actively trying to be quirky, and that is something that I am not sure that I know how to comes to terms with. I guess it is kind of funny, but in a way that doesn't seem to offer anything new while simultaneously not being something that has been done with any frequency. No, when it comes to something that has been done before one doesn't need to go further than To Darfur by Erik Christian Hanson. Equating small-mindedness with being a Southerner and/or a Republican – which while not a being an argument without merit, it is not really a fact – is old hat. And there is nothing much more going on for To Darfur, even in terms of being entertaining.
Nora Chau's Whatever Happened to Finger Painting, Animal Crackers, and Afternoon Naps? has a slight absurdist edge to it and has some fun with WASP-y conflicts, but it is both too short and too in love with itself to really be considered a full piece. At least it is better than The Answer, which felt like a writing exercise that tried to use play conventions to mask the lack of original story.
Larry Hamm impressed me with Do-Overs, but more because it felt like a cross between something I co-authored (Call Me Temujin) and Richard A. Knaak's Dutchman (1996). It is the story of two souls that keep finding each other over many incarnations, while a third soul – one that has not had a single life under its belt – tries to gauge expectations of life and love from their revelations. It is clever, and perhaps even slightly sappy, but it also feels like it manages to get a full story told in its brief time. It is immediately followed by Gloom, Doom, and Soul-Crushing Misery by Robin Rice Lichtig, a play where the single distinguishing feature is having the Travelocity gnome shoved up someone's ass. It is the opposite of clever and smart, so I assume that it must look much better when performed than it reads. At least it didn't read like a piece of mediocre high school writing, which is how Chris Shaw Swanson's The Growth came off. Even in trying to be more positive in my evaluations of these pieces, there is nothing about The Growth that speaks towards professional level writing or the concept of subtlety.
Patrick Gabridge's Measuring Matthew is another effort to put a character with Asperger's Syndrome into a story. This has become quite common in the last ten years, or at least very noticeable. From Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory (2007–present) to Abed Nadir on Community (2009–present) to Max Braverman on Parenthood (2010–present) to Wally Stevens (as played by Mark Linn Baker in 2003) on Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2001-2011), there is an unhealthy fascination with the fascination characters with Asperger's have with seemingly trivial, non-standard subjects. I find it tiresome, in part because there is seldom an examination of what the condition actually is. Also, because there is almost always an indulgence of the behaviors of the characters so as to not challenge the established order.
Night Terrors manages to undue most of its solid writing and existential examination simply by having the third role be largely inaccessible. It is leaps and bounds better then Zachary Zwillinger Eats People, which combines poor grammar (and not in a purposeful manner to establish character) and never stops being preachy. The best advice I have seen on the subject is that if an author wants to be preachy, write either an essay or a sermon.
The collection gets better with a pair plays where the single point may just be that cynicism can win out. The Baby War by Laura Cotton tells the story of the fight over the future of an illegitimate child between the well-to-do and the merely middle class. It also manages some sly criticism of consumerism reinforced through reality television. It also has the following exchange (where Carolyn is April’s mother and Patricia is the mother of the boy who got April pregnant):
Patricia: You see, I’ve decided that I can’t allow April to have
April: I wasn’t planning on having an abortion.
Patricia: Of course you were.
April: No, I wasn’t.
Carolyn: Are you sure, honey? You could have just a tiny one.
April: A tiny abortion? What, are you out of your mind?
It is far better than most of the dialogue present in the book. Thankfully, it is followed by the just-as-cynical but darker Sexual Perversity in Connecticut by Mike Folie. Finding some proper balance between honoring and sending-up Mamet and exaggerating WASP-y catfighting, it manages to be wry without ever tripping over into the ridiculous. And it serves as a good reminder to keep an eye out for the babysitters who become whores.
Sister Snell isn't bad, but it tries to be witty at all times and feels far too short for the scope of story that could have been told. It isn't bad, but I feel that it would have been better served to be developed into a longer piece. As it stands, it resembles more of a well-written sketch.
Much different is Vanessa David's Current Season. It resembles the play about turkeys in that it calls for a trio of actors to play at being animals, in this case light-up reindeer decorations. Still, it has a quirky charm, as one of the most inappropriate lines (at least out of context) I've seen in a long while.
Prancer: "If being in homosexual positions brings holiday cheer to
the people, then I'm all for it. Bring on the kids."
Intervention is a play revolving around a one-note joke, one that is obvious by page two, doesn't get said until page six, and then is hammered home for another whole page. It is an example of something obvious being mistaken for something clever, an insight the common person has never made. The end result is a tedious reading experience that I guess could only be worse when seen in person.
Jerome Parisse's Guys, Only Guys! manages to get the one-joke story structure right. While probably better served as being a tighter comedy sketch, it is a funny brief play that successfully establishes characters and a story. While the twist of an ending may be obvious, it doesn't feel like it has been coming since the characters show up; personally, I think it strikes the right balance of being novel and not so 'out there' as to alienate an audience. Strangely, Parisse's The Birthday Knife reads as an extremely creepy experience. It feels like there is a very real threat to the main character, and because of this any humor otherwise in the story is drained away. It is definitely the weaker of his two efforts here.
When I wrote about some of the plays requiring as much production work as a full-length play, I may have been most specifically thinking of Mark Harvey Levine's Cabfare for the Common Man. This is made more lamentable because Cabfare is full of labored metaphors and imagery. The only point is has to make is that one doesn't really go through life alone, with the addendum that the right person can be found. In what universe is that profound? Or even true? Where is the story for the truly miserable, how life is an unbearable series of lonely experiences where the people who leave you are the ones who are not destined to go through life alone? (I am going to come right out and admit I would probably have criticized that story, too, if it were as sloppily conceived as Levine's.) He has a much better piece with A Case of Anxiety. With an Inspector that begs the performer to overact as much as possible and repetitions that propel the story forward, it is the darker story he was afraid to tell with Cabfare. It is still a little too sunny, but has quite possibly the best instructions for how to introduce a gorilla into a play:
(Robert opens the door to let the Inspector out and is
immediately attacked by a giant gorilla who bursts into
the apartment. [If you can’t find a gorilla with an Equity
card, someone in a gorilla suit, a particularly large and
hairy actor will do the trick.] The gorilla picks up Robert
and tosses him around.)]
The collection closes with Lisa Loomer's Fear of Spheres. I didn't get it. Not even a little. It appears to be a play that would be fun to perform, but if it doesn't mean anything then what's the point?
All in all, I think there were enough well written pieces to make the book worth reading, but I will question what makes these plays the best of those available for consideration. I would also wager that thirty is too large a sample for those who actually want to read through the plays. Sure, it is better for those who are looking for material to produce, but that is well beyond my scope or interest.
▸ The Adventures of... by Kathleen Warnock (2006)
▸ Antarctica by George Freek (2008)
▸ How to Survive in Corporate America (A Manual in Eight Steps) by Ian August (2008)
▸ In the Trap by Carl L. Williams (2007)
▸ Moon Man by Jami Brandli (2007)
▸ October People by Mark Larmbeck (2007)
▸ The Other Show by Lisa Soland (2008)
▸ The Perfect Red by Paola Soto Hornbuckle (2007)
▸ Squalor by Gina Gionfriddo (2007)
▸ Three Turkeys Waiting for Corncobs by Don Nigro (2008)
▸ To Darfur by Erik Christian Hanson (007)
▸ Whatever Happened to Finger Painting, Animal Crackers, and Afternoon Naps? By Nora Chau (2007)
▸ The Answer by Vanessa David (2008)
▸ Do-Overs by Larry Hamm (2007)
▸ Gloom, Doom, and Soul-Crushing Misery by Robin Rice Lichtig (2007)
▸ The Growth by Chris Shaw Swanson (2007)
▸ Measuring Matthew by Patrick Gabridge (2004)
▸ Night Terrors by Wendy MacLeod (2007)
▸ Zachary Zwillinger Eats People by Lauren D. Yee (2007)
▸ The Baby War by Laura Cotton (2007)
▸ Sexual Perversity in Connecticut by Mike Folie (2007)
▸ Sister Snell by Mark Troy (2002)
▸ Current Season by Vanessa David (2007)
▸ The Title Fight by Ian August (2006)
▸ Intervention by Mark Lambeck (2007)
▸ Guys, Only Guys! by Jerome Parisse (2008)
▸ The Birthday Knife by Jerome Parisse (2007)
▸ Cabfare for the Common Man by Mark Harvey Levine (2005)
▸ A Case of Anxiety by Mark Harvey Levine (2006)
▸ Fear of Spheres by Lisa Loomer (2008)