The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 42.0°F | Fair


Boston Theater Marathon

Forty Plays, Ten Hours

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

The Boston Playwrights Theatre

Plays by Laura Harrington, Leslie Epstein, William Donnelly, Alan Brody, and 36 others.

April 18, 1999.

I took a part in a marathon last weekend. Not that sissy one where all you have to do is run for, like, three hours or so. Mine was much more arduous, challenging, and required more stamina, both physical and phychological. I’m speaking of the First Annual Boston Theater Marathon.

Hosted by the Boston Playwrights Theatre, the BTM was truly a test of endurance. Forty short plays were presented in rapid-fire succession: four plays in an hour-long segment, with only a five-minute intermission between segments. The plays, selected from the approximately 180 received after an open submission call, were written by most of the big names of the Boston playwrighting scene, including MIT Professor Alan Brody and a Theater Arts Lecturer Laura Harrington. The works ranged from simple to elaborate, from clear to obscure, from excellent to downright terrible. The only thing in common was the running time. Each play was ten minutes long, give or take a few.

The day was full of surprises, pleasant and unpleasant. The biggest one, and the most pleasant one: the whole program was eminently watchable, with the plays switching rapidly, yet each having just enough time to register as a separate creative work and as a part of a bigger picture. Most of them were also fun, unexpected and exciting, and, once in a while, even moving or profound.

There was also a curious nexus of themes and ideas. Probably indicative of the current age of actively working playwrights, a good deal of plays explored the topic of confronting and accepting mortality -- or, to say the same thing in human language, the topic of whiny baby-boomers. No less than three plays had the identical plot of a young man dealing with his dying father. Since this theme by itself is extremely somber and grave, the plays which tried to examine it by being somber and grave failed to work; on the other hand, when it was realized as a sharply-timed slapstick comedy (Aidan Parkinson’s Peas), the result was miraculously engaging. Another shared theme, that of an older man engaging into a relationship with a younger woman, resulted in a couple of embarassingly static works, Tug Yourgrau’s Midlife and Andy Mitton’s Enough.

It’s very hard to write a short play where things actually happen, so it’s no wonder most of the 40 plays presented were, basically, about people talking. But the results were vastly different, ranging from excellent to inane. The excellent ones included Brody’s A Hotel Room in Cleveland and Constance, Congdon’s Under Lubianka Square, both of which not only put the audience directly into a specific location in space and time, but also infused the moment with the sense that the whole future of this world is hanging in balance right now. As a matter of fact, this skill -- finging a precise moment where things change irrevocably and making it into a play -- was very much in evidence in such excellent works as Jon Lipsky’s The Mistake, and Katherine Snodgrass’ Que Sera, Sera. The last of these is also funny, unabashedly romantic, and grandly theatrical, in the best sense of the word.

Given all the talky plays, it was another major surprise when some plays actually had things physically happening. Most successful plays of this kind were comedies, deftly exploring physical humor, including Harrington’s Flag Girls, Barry Brodsky’s The Twelve Forty, and Bruce Ward’s Room 69. The final play of the evening, by the way, was an honest-to-goodness ten minute musical, Richard Schotter’s and Michael Kosarin’s Duet for Shy People.

Unpleasant surprise: a good deal of playwrights have no idea what they’re doing. There were plays which clearly worked very hard to make sure the audience has no slightest idea what was going on. These included Theresa Rebeck’s Late Arrival, where two sisters were discussing a subject which only they -- not the audience -- knew anything about. Even less compehensible was Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro’s Amsterdam, written as a series of awfully stilted monologues, with one person delivering both his/her lines and the lined of the person they were talking to.

Ultimately, the two plays which were the most characteristic of the BTM program were Melinda Lopez’ The Lesson and David Mamet’s Dodge. The Lesson is a one-person monologue, a carpenter telling the story how she taught her boyfriend’s son to drive a nail. The story is utterly riveting, wildly finny, poignant, and exciting all at once, painting a clear picuture of the characters and the world they inhabit. Mamet’s play was selected outside the competition, based on his name alone -- and I wish it wasn’t. Dodge is also a one-person monologue, an awfully stilted, incomprehensible, rambling, pointless, pretentious, and annoying narration, with no character, story, or point worth mentioning.

Final surprise: the whole program, despite the inclusion of some rather poor plays -- or maybe because of them, providing as it is something to groan at -- really didn’t feel like ten hours. With the opening and closing segments being especially electrifying, I was shocked to realize that, after sitting there for ten hours, I ended up wishing for more.