For the 15th year, Theatre Southwest presents its annual array of one-act plays, giving playwrights, directors and actors an opportunity to prove their mettle. The offerings of The 15th Annual Festival of Originals range from the delightfully comic to the powerfully dramatic, with an occasional misstep along the way.
Instant Harmony, which tackles online dating, is a wonderful comedy filled with shrewd insights into human nature. The work is written by Joe Starzyk, a playwright who knows how to set up a joke and make it pay off, deftly directed by Jay Menchaca and brought to its richly humorous life by talented actors. Bob Maddox plays Chris, at loose ends romantically, and buddy Joe (Howard Block) persuades him to try a computer dating service. Both Maddox and Block have great timing, and Maddox has the gift of making the most of a minor line through his reactions. After the opening, Chris meets his computer-selected date at a restaurant, and, yes, technology has screwed things up yet again.
Todd Thigpen, who in other roles has tended to thunder his lines, here gives a subtle and intelligent performance. Terry Smith in a relatively minor role is attractive and persuasive. Tausheli McClure as the waitress is beautiful and looks stunning in a purple dress as her shift ends, but oversells her bipolar attitude toward customers — since the writer has made this joke so lucid, it need not be underlined. Altogether, this segment is a triumph and Theatre Southwest has done well to make it the closing play of the evening.
The 15th Annual Festival of Originals
Through August 4.
Moving from the mask of comedy to tragedy, we have Sweet Jesus, a two-hander involving a man and woman who are homeless, carrying their possessions with them, settling in for the night in a park. It is written by George J. Bryjak and directed by Lisa Schofield, who finds the melody in loneliness and the dramatic strength in desperation. Pam Pankratz plays the woman, complete with twitches that took a little getting used to, and she is authentic and interesting. Rhett Martinez portrays the man and is wonderfully compelling in a quietly effective, understated characterization. There is the necessary exposition as we learn a bit about how the unnamed characters came to be homeless, and this seems shoehorned in, but writer Bryjak has created memorable individuals and a brilliantly conceived dilemma in a one-act with the power of a knockout punch.
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Scott Holmes plays hypochondriac Vernon in I Can Feel It Coming On, written by Carl L. Williams and directed by David Hymel, and he succeeds in making us care for his character. Holmes is masterful in reflecting anxiety, as well as an anticipatory joy, felt when his long-suffering wife, Millie (Crys Hymel), brings in a psychologist (Sammi Sicinski) in a tight dress to work with him on his problem. Holmes's expression as he unexpectedly finds his face inches from her bosom is a one-act play by itself. Playwright Williams has created interesting characters, avoiding the pitfall of making Vernon a whiner, and succeeding, along with actor Hymel, in making Millie interesting and credible as the wife. The psychologist, named Hortense Wisenkoff (yes, there is a joke there), seems more of a one-note character, but this may be the direction.
Murder most foul enlivens each of the two remaining plays. In a work titled On, by David Vazdauskas, the setup and lighting are interesting. Lisabeth (Molly Wills Carnes) is framed in a spotlight as she creates on-camera words of farewell to loved ones. The camera-operator is Alana (Chelsea Curto), and all is not quite what it seems — Alana obviously expects an intruder to enter, and so we have first Charles (William Sharp) and then Frank (Rich Taylor). There is a chess game being played here — be careful what you drink — and there is some macabre humor. Carnes is excellent, as is Taylor in his very minor part, but Sharp doesn't create a vivid Charles, and the role of Alana is beyond the present capabilities of Curto, so the suspense is frittered away. Directed by John Mitsakis, the play's in here somewhere, like a cat in a bag, struggling to get out.
Downtime is written by George Rapier and directed by Justin Holloway, and the audience is kept initially in the dark as to why an attractive young woman, Beth (Amanda L. Baird), has invited Les, a marketing executive, to her hotel room. Les is played by Wade Gonsoulin, and his expression is so universally dour that when he questions his appeal to Beth, it rings far too true. The playwright creates rampant implausibility as Les offers to leave several times and Beth unconvincingly persuades him to stay, at times rejecting his advances and at others unbuttoning her blouse provocatively. Baird might find a more nuanced portrayal fits her role better, and Gonsoulin might do better not to whisper so many lines. In the minor role of Donald, Rich Taylor is excellent.
Talent reigns supreme at this festival. There's plenty of variety, and moments of both pure joy and emancipating insights are ample. Theatre Southwest is to be commended for bringing this theatrical feast to Houston.