Stephen Sondheim once said, “To make art sound effortless takes a lot of effort.” And as a community we all understand how fulfilling but also challenging creating theater sometimes can be. That’s why for 25 years, event like Pittsburgh New Works Festival is always a perfect place for aspiring young writers coming from all over the world to create their art, work on their craft, and together to inspire and be inspired. But Sondheim also said in his songs, “How do you know what you want, until you get what you want?” For new works it’s always hard to do judge if it’s good or bad, because usually you won’t be completely sure what the artist is trying to achieve or experiment with through this new work, so you have to always keep an open mind and appreciate the art form, but also watch and listen objectively and critically. I was at the first Stage Reading of the Festival this past Sunday, and I was fortunate enough to witness three one-act plays being performed/read for the live audience for the very first time.
The first play Glue, written by Pittsburgh Native John Seibel and produced by Industrial Gardens, tells a story about two strangers who met in the park sharing a healing journey together through broken shoes and war stories. Teen talk show hostess Olivia Gill played a young lady Kathy, who had a pair of broken heels, and asked Milton, an American Afghanistan veteran played by Pitt graduate Christopher Collier, for some glue. The entire story is centered on Milton, and as the plot progresses, more of his personal history and stores at the war got revealed to the audience.
The play begins with Kathy approaching Milton and asking him in Dr. Seuss Style, “Do you have some glue?” Then I assume because this is a one-act play, the tension between the characters suddenly becomes so serious so soon, that Milton just begins to tell this lovely young lady he just met about his days in the VA and how the war has broken him. Although the “intense” personality here is necessary for the character, and the discussion of veterans’ life and PTSD is definitely relevant, I couldn’t help but wonder if this material could be executed in a different way. In the entire play we don’t really hear that much talking from Kathy besides some occasional listener/outsider’s comments on Milton’s stories. And the progression from the beginning where two strangers just met, to the end where Milton delivers the title statement, “You are my glue” to Kathy’s “You can trust me” line seems just needs to be a little bit more convincing. I understand that the analogy between Kathy’s “broken heels” and how she “heals” Milton’s “broken spirit” might be the inception behind this play, and her change of position from the person who is asking Milton for glue to eventually becoming the “glue” for Milton is engaging and thoughtful, but the overall “for the sake of storytelling” narrative just might not be cohesive enough to grab audience’s emotions.
The second play Extraordinary Lies was written by James Baden and produced by Comtra Theatre. It’s another play with only two actors but this time involving two long-time-no-see friends sharing old memories over tea and revealing new secrets. CMU faculty Don Slater played Jack Arden, a mediocre teacher who grades student poems and tells dry jokes and stories. And actor Harry Gerhardt played Jack’s old time friend Harry Martin, who got a call from Jack and decided to fly all the way from California to come visit his friend and reminisce about old days. The set up of the story is pretty straightforward, yet it is the objective of the characters and the plot that I found confusing.
Setting aside the fact that it’s a only staged reading and Mr. Slater’s occasional “can’t find the line” pauses didn’t help, the script overall didn’t do the best job for the story, meaning that sometimes we are still confused about what the playwright is trying to convey through the characters’ conversations. From the very beginning of the play we can sort of tell that Harry is in some way “obsessed” with Jack, by the endless questions he asks and that 3-minute weird and uncomfortable (but maybe intentional) shoulder massage he gave to Jack, and when eventually he reveals to Jack that he is gay and wants Jack to go back to California with him we thought okay this is starting to make sense. But over the course of the story there are so many melodramatic moments (comments about teaching, grades for the paper, “say yes when you mean yes”, etc.) would just throw audiences off. The script tries to be funny by using profanity languages in several places, which did buy some generous laughs from the audience. However those laughs came more from surprises and awkwardness.
The third and final play Flabby Abby was written by Emergency Physician Dr. J. Thalia Cunningham as an act from her full-length piece Foodfights, produced by Prime Stage. It’s a story about a ten-year-old obese girl Abigail waiting in a doctor’s office with her parents and how everyone eventually realizes the truth and root behind their troubles and struggles. This play has four cast members, with Kendra Wickham playing Abigail, George Saulnier and Valerie Blue playing Abigail’s parents Mr. and Mrs. LeBoeuf, and Michael Guantonio playing the pediatrician’s nurse Patrick.
The play starts off like a story about a family dealing with a special kid, which is another hot topic in theater nowadays (The Light in the Piazza, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime). However as the story progresses it gradually loses that intimate touch. The conversation between the parents in the waiting room when they blame each other for causing their daughter’s problem is unrealistic and melo-comedic. Then the transfer from parents’ argument to the scene where Patrick and Abigail start to bond by sharing their own stories is abrupt and makes us wonder if the story is still about a struggling family. And in the end when Patrick says to Abigail the line that supposed to be the theme-highlighter of the entire play, “It’s easy to fight when you know what you’re fighting for”, the perspective of the story just completely lands on a different place compared to the beginning of the play.
All of the stories at this stage reading have huge expandable potentials with a lot of space to explore, but the scripts in general just didn’t execute the themes really well. But again, the overall effort and mission of Pittsburgh New Works Festival is to foster the development of original works and encourage and support new artists and playwrights. So standing by my humble opinions, I look forward to the future staged readings and full productions of this exciting festival.
John Seibel (playwright), Olivia Gill (Kathy), Christopher Collier (Milton), lance-eric skapura (Director), Christine Marie (Producer), Megan Hackman (Stage Manager)
James Baden (Playwright), Harry Gerhardt (Harry Martin), Don Slater (Jack Arden), Cathy Gialloreto (Director), Jack Farkas (Producer), Patricia Farkas (Stage Manager)
J. Thalia Cunningham, M.D. (Playwright), Valerie Blue (Melissa LeBoeuf), George Saulnier (Carlton LeBoeuf), Kendra Wickham (Abigail), Michael Guantonio (Patrick), Linda Haston (Director), Wayne Brinda, Ed. D. (Producer), Caitlin Skaff (Stage Manager)
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh New Works Festival for complimentary press tickets. Catch another weekend of staged readings at Carnegie StageSunday August 31st at 7. For more information, check out PNWF’s website.
Performance Date: Sunday, August 23, 2015