For 27 seasons, the Pittsburgh New Works Festival has brought new one act shows to the stage from playwrights both local and from far away. Last weekend, I got to check out three non-local writers’ new shows during Program D of the PNWF’s four program run. As always, the shows are more focused on bringing the story to life, showcasing the acting and the words over staging and effects. I was pleased to see that all three of the shows I saw excelled in performing their scripts with limited sets and props.
The first show, When You are a Little Bit Older, was an interesting presentation. I was warned to sit on audience left in the theatre to get a better viewpoint, as the characters were actually sitting in audience right during the show. This show, written by Matthew Weaver, was presented by Thoreau, NM- A Production Company. It featured three teenagers at the cinema watching a movie. At least, one of them was watching the movie. The other two spend the show trying desperately to make out but are continually thwarted by the younger brother, played by Korey Grecek. Grecek repeatedly makes his older brother (Peter Kelley Stamerra) go out to concessions for more snacks, upon the threat of telling his girlfriend’s father what’s they’re up to during the movie. Stamerra had a limited role in the show, spending most of his time crawling over actual theatre goers to get out of the aisle, but his exasperation at Grecek is well played, making me guess he has younger siblings of his own.
The show is really about the younger brother wanting a chance to chat up his bro’s girlfriend, played convincingly by Sophia Rose Englesberg. Grecek spends the time waiting for his brother to come back asking Englesberg about her past relationships, and eventually advice for the future of his own. Director lance-eric skapura did a great job with staging the show and blocking the kids, even if I wondered several times why these kids weren’t kicked out of the movie theater for constantly talking during the film. I thought the show could have been slightly shorter. There would only be so many times I’d be willing to return to concessions before I’d lose it, no matter what the threat was. Aside from that, this show is a cute, light-hearted piece with lots of humor. A very nice way to open the evening.
The South Hills Players presented the second show, Bernie, in my opinion the funniest of the evening. It was full of dark humor, involving themes of suicide, death, failure, and hopelessness. Despite all that, writer Fred Perry is skilled at making the audience laugh out loud time after time. Most of the laughs came from Steven F. Gallagher, who played the titular role. Bernie is the dictionary definition of cynical, having experienced loss, frustration, and constant setback. Losing his beloved dog is the last straw, and he decides to kill himself. Except he’s not very good at that either. Gallagher’s delivery of the lines is exceptional, clearly having a lot of experience with comedic timing.
Playing wonderfully alongside Gallagher is Dave Malehorn, Bernie’s brother Sid. Sid is called upon when Bernie’s suicide goes south, and Malehorn spends the show exasperated at his brother’s recent behavior. This is another theme, that goes along with the first and last show, of being there for family no matter how ridiculous or annoying they can be. Gallagher and Malehorn play extremely well off each other. Major kudos to director Jennifer Luta for her casting choices and direction of tone.After an intermission for
After an intermission for set change, the last show of the evening was presented: Story Road. While Stage Right Pittsburgh did a nice job bringing out the humor of playwright Mark Cornell’s piece, it was about conflict and unhappiness. A young girl was running away from her father, not because she didn’t love him, but because she’d had enough of his on-the-road-musician lifestyle. Ellie, played by Marybeth Herman, only wanted a normal life, with a house and friends and a family, all grounded in one location. Since her mother died, it’s been her and her father on the road while he performs his songs, which she reminds him several times are not very good, at different bars and clubs to make a living. Herman is great in her role of dramatically-annoyed teen girl, and you certainly get a sense from her that even if her father hadn’t caught up with her, she wasn’t really going to go anywhere.
Andrew Lasswell played Cleveland, a man who is struggling to provide for his daughter and himself the only way he can. The chemistry between Herman and Lasswell was earnest and heartfelt. And while there was a lot of humor, there was a lot of pain and frustration as well. Director Joe Eberle also cast this duo very well for each other, and he knew exactly when to play up the humor and highlight the serious moments. I may have even shed a tear or two at the ending.
While shows this brand new often have a few imperfections, all three shows of Program D have enough humor and talent to beyond make up for the newness of the pieces. These seven actors have done fantastic jobs at bringing the shows to life, and I hope all the writers are proud of their work.
The Pittsburgh New Works Festival runs through September 24 at Carnegie Stage. For tickets and more information, check out their website here.