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Glenda Frank

"Happy Birthday William Abernathy" by Lloyd Suh, directed by Deborah Hedwall;
"October/November" by Anne Washburn, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll;
"The Great War" by Neil LaBute, directed by Andrew McCarthy;
"Ideogram" by David Zellnik, directed by Abigail Zealey Bess;
"Okay" by Taylor Mac, directed by Jose Zayas.
At the Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 W. 52 St., NYC
May 23-June 20, 2008.
Tickets: $18.00. $15 for students/seniors.
Call 212-352-3101, 866-811-4111(toll free), or check the website www.ensemblestudiotheatre.org

Every serious playwright deserves a showcase -- to experiment, reconsider, revise or scrap -- and that's precisely what the EST marathons are all about.

Held during the summer and consisting of five quick takes – most of the one-acts are about half an hour long -- the festival might seem to be part of the growing trend toward reasonably priced theatre for people who don't want a highly polished or even finished production. For people who want to experience theatre that is not Broadway.

But the EST marathon is the grand-daddy of them all, 30 years old this year, and it knows how to put on a show, how to balance and stimulate, how to showcase talent and use a limited budget wisely. Young fumbling is weighed by skilled writing, and it all always seems fresh if not necessarily promising. Also the acting is usually good – and often better than good. Sometimes you even get a chance to see a prominent actor in a memorable performance.

The strongest play in Series B is by Neil LaBute, which is no surprise. His "reasons to be pretty" is still running at the Lucille Lortel Theatre to high praise. As the last play in a series about male-female relationships that includes "Fat Pig," and "The Shape of Things," which was made into a movie, it is a devastating look at the end of love.

LaBute has a fresh eye and a jaundiced perspective that easily vanquishes sentimentality. His plays are like mini-vacations without guilt from social obligations and mores. In "The Great War," he allows us to share his characters' selfish candor. A man and woman on the verge of divorce meet to divide up the spoils – including the children. He is willing to be magnanimous and let her have custody. She has other ideas – and she is direct and angry. She's even willing to throw in the Lexus.

The language, as in all LaBute plays, contains a forceful, concise poetry of feeling. She confesses, "At dinner, I wish a satellite would fall on your face. Honestly, I don't say this out of malice." "This is turning out to be a brutally honest Tues., he observes.

The acting is impressive and the performers highly accomplished. Laila Robins is the clear-eyed woman. Her last Broadway stints were in Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House" and "The Real Thing." Her last film was "The Good Shepherd." Grant Shaud is the unsuspecting husband whose world – and values – are turned upside down. His last Broadway stint was in "Torch Song Trilogy." Under Andrew McCarthy's well-paced direction, not a nuance or nastiness is lost.

"Ideogram" by David Zellnik, under the direction of Abigail Zealey Bess, is inventive and ironic – exactly the type of theatre fun a seasoned critic hopes to find. Jasper, a white guy (Bryan Fenkart), writes a few pages of pseudo-Chinese as a goof on Drew, his Asian buddy (Pun Bandhu). When an old woman (Siho Ellsmore) informs him that he is a great writer, he thinks she's turning the joke on him. But the more he scribbles, the more she praises. Drew believes none of this, especially that foreign agents are stalking his buddy for his writing. (His own pseudo-masterpiece has been declared gibberish.) So when the men confront him, Drew claims authorship of Jasper's manuscripts – and vanishes. The piece needs development, but even as is it's a delight.

"October/November" by Anne Washburn, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, is a series of short encounters between Nikkie (Amelia McClain), a confused, hormone-driven teen, and David (Gio Perez), a pre-teen who is ready to be changed into a rock star and initiated into (innocent) sex. It's hard to even guess Nikkie's motivation in befriending David, but she has lots of direct and surprising dialogue, and the accumulating scenes take on compelling dimension. "October/November" could easily be an early approach to a longer work.

Taylor Mac is a fountainhead of ideas and she crams them all into "Okay," a look at a prom, set in the ladies' room. The excess of characters and traumas obscures the two most compelling creations – Trish (Olivia Mandell), a bright, highly articulate senior who calms her angst with lines of coke and the sexual tryst between two gay guys (Johnny Pruitt and Bobby Moreno). Jose Zayas directs with discrete clarity, but the frenzy in the writing proves ultimately unruly and some of the characters speak so quickly, words and ideas are lost.

"Happy Birthday William Abernathy" [sic] by Lloyd Suh is a cross-cultural encounter between the white Abernathy before his 100th birthday party and Albert, his Asian-looking great-grandson. The climax is Abernathy's confession, which may work if you care about the stiff Albert or old social injustice.

If you missed Series B of Marathon 2008, be sure to catch Series C. It runs June 6-28 and features work by Lewis Black, Michael Feingold, Frank D Gilroy, Jacquelyn Reingold and José Rivera.

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