Besides writing a full-length play, the most difficult task in the theater is to write a short work. It's a lot longer than you think. Not only do you have to have all the criteria of the long form in place -- theme, character, dialogue, tone, structure -- you also have to wrap it all together quickly. Usually that means anything complex gets jettisoned. Think short story rather than novel. Success in this unique form requires theater's equivalent to O. Henry, Poe or Welty; otherwise, ten minutes stretch interminably.
Ten by Ten, produced by Scriptwriters/Houston, celebrates its 16th year with this current show. The premise is simplicity itself: ten writers and ten plays, each ten minutes max. While there are glints of invention and freshness sprinkled throughout, most of what's on view is anything but golden. Credit is due to the resourceful actors who flesh out the playwrights' characters.
Let's start with Cookies. We're not out to bludgeon playwright Ed Vela, whose previous short work Wine and Wafers from an earlier Ten by Ten program was Neil Simon by comparison, but to show what can go wrong with a plot so deceptively simple and straightforward. Grumpy kid Parker (Tommy Waas) sits in a car next to his uncle Frank (Kevin Kretz). Both are wearing the worst drag possible. Parker keeps scratching his ill-fitting wig and fiddling with his fake boobs. He mutters, "Beyond stupid" and "Too much."
Ten by Ten
Theatre One, Houston Community College, 3517 Austin, 281-795-1747.
Through August 26. $12.
The reason Parker is dressed this way is quickly established. His kid sister is sick, but her quota of cookies must be sold by the end of the day and she has to do it on her own -- no family member may help her and buy them. Parker has consented to play her for the day, and Uncle Frank is driving him out of the neighborhood where no one will know the ruse. But why on earth is Uncle Frank in drag? There's no rule from the Wildlife Girl Explorers manual that says sis's mother must accompany her. The only reason Uncle Frank is wearing women's clothes is because it's the easy laugh. Why have only one guy in drag when you can put another gruff guy in panty hose and inappropriate blond tresses? It's the cheap way out, as are all the usual jokes about hairy legs and constricting lingerie.
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This inconsequential little joke of a play is saved by young Waas, who turns the stale material into Molire. He makes us believe in Parker's humiliation and torment at playing a girl -- and looking more convincing than he ought to. He's a delight in this slight role (all preteen bluster and chagrin) and supplies Vela's character with much-needed warm blood instead of recycled cold ink.
Other works miss the mark as well. It's Tricky Being Merry, by Tim Lake, a redux of Men in Tights without the smut, is genuinely funny at the beginning. One of Robin Hood's outlaws (a flummoxed Matt Tramel) is incensed at the changes Robin has proposed to their mission statement and their name -- they will now give their stolen loot to the poor and be called Merry Men. It falls to pieces, though, when Robin (John Dunn) performs a long nonsense monologue to explain himself. The rambling Robin resembles Richard Simmons crossed with Joel Osteen and Captain Queeg, but what's the point? Quest for Water, by George Rapier, a caveman parody about the earliest battle of the sexes, has potential. But as Ug-dub (the urbane Glen Lambert) and Koba (Sue Mortenson) invent language and toss insults, it goes nowhere, ending abruptly with a lame slo-mo 2001 parody.
With its fluid structure and theatrical chops, Cutters, by Meghan Hakes, is the most dramatically accomplished of the ten plays. Powerfully acted by Julie Weiman, Sara Jo Dunstan, Raygan Kelly, Allison Marek and Barbara Lasater (as Doc), the story centers around four young people facing their self-mutilation obsessions in a group therapy session. Although the play is too skimpy for us to fully sympathize with their bizarre masochism, it packs a wallop nonetheless.
Another success is Second Chances, by Joe Barnes. Although these are supposed to be premieres, I swear I've seen this one before, but that doesn't negate its sweet black humor. Perky, determined Rachel (a delightfully joyous Morgan McCarthy) will not allow her ber-slob husband, Morris (an equally delightful Steve Carpentier), to darken her day. She bounds around their apartment attempting to perk up his interest in her new job -- and in her. He scratches, yawns and swills another beer as she chirps and tries to nuzzle. The play is a sprightly rendered Odd Couple whose ending is absolute perfection. This one's ten minutes well spent.