The Annual Festival of Originals, or FOO, as the folks at Theatre Southwest call it, is an absolutely inspired idea. For 11 years, hungry playwrights from across the country have been submitting their scripts in hopes of seeing their words come to life onstage. Return addresses include both prisons and universities. Only five get chosen for a full production, and there are two charming comedies among the lucky quintet of selected scripts.
The two best of the five actually come after intermission. The second half of the evening opens with Carl Williams's A Thirties Affair, a laugh-out-loud comedy full of smart characters and zippy one-liners. The situation is ordinary — a married couple sets up two friends on a blind date — but Williams layers the moment with rich oddballs, and they're played by a strong cast. Pauline (Brenda Kuciemba) is obsessed with matchmaking. Her husband Henry (played with hysterically dry wit by James Reed) goes along to make peace, but really all he wants is a steak dinner and a cold one. The friends of the couple, Carla (Stacy Spaeth) and Jason (Simon Martinez), aren't too happy about Pauline's earnest desire to get them together. But the irony is that for all their complaining, Jason and Carla actually do have a lot in common. They both have a nerdy knowledge of black-and-white '30s films (they even know all the character actors' names), and underneath all their grumpy harrumphing, they actually kind of like each other. Still, they hatch a plan to worm their way out of dinner with Pauline and Henry.
This is an old-fashioned domestic comedy centered around perfectly timed jokes and a couch at center stage. Under Barbara S. Hartman's direction, Spaeth and Martinez trade linguistic barbs like the film stars they admire and move about the set with a natural comedic grace. The only trouble with this script is that it feels unfinished, like the first scene of something much longer. Perhaps Theatre Southwest is testing the waters for a full-length production.
Annual Festival of Originals
Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505.
Through August 9. $13.
The other success is Warren Holleman's The Comity of Eros, a take on Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, written in verse. As the title implies, the story is about a man and a woman and sex. Very quickly, the horny couple decide they want to get married. Only trouble is, She (Ananka Kohnitz) is married, and He (Brian Heaton)...well, it's a surprise, but he can't marry as things stand. This script is the most finished and most daring of the night. Full of political jabs and sexual innuendo, the story follows the couple through a mini play in several tiny "Acts" as they make all sorts of silly discoveries about each other. Some of this could certainly be trimmed a bit, but Kohnitz and Heaton, along with Scott Holmes, who plays a third character called Fool, are very funny as they romp through all the spirited shenanigans. This little production is strong enough to make the whole second half of the night worth it.
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Unfortunately, the first three productions limp along with a number of problems. Tanya Seale's Cafe Deux Parfaits is shaped around a predictable idea that isn't helped by the script's construction or Amanda Bonfitto's direction. The story focuses on two couples, an elderly pair who fight and two young sweethearts. Of course, nothing is as it seems. The story idea is made even weaker by the script, whose dialogue only the most accomplished actors could pull off. The conversation is supposed to have the effect of overlapping. The old people misunderstand the young ones and vice versa, and we know this because each is talking about the other. But there are long gaps between the observations each couple makes, and the jokes get lost in the terrible timing.
Brian Heaton's Holding on to Rose is a bizarre drama that asks its audience to believe that a man has spent 15 years cooking meals for and talking to his dead wife. Even more absurd is the fact that he's raised his children, one of whom is very angry, while doing so. Perhaps if we weren't meant to take the script as realistic, we might accept the outrageous situation. But as it is, husband Jack (Lee Born) looks and acts like the guy next door — making Heaton's story the biggest head-scratcher of the night.
At the end of the first half comes John Kaiser's Simply Stunning, about a Tupperware-style party for stun guns. As Hasty Cunningham, the sharp-suited lady selling the guns, Maria O. Sirgo is very funny, but her performance is the only thing that keeps this one-joke script alive. None of the ladies at the party are written as individuals, and there's no real conflict. Kaiser's whole script is spun around the joke that women wish they could have physical power over men, which isn't so funny when you think about it.
As weak as the first half is, if you can make it through to intermission, your ticket to the festival will pay off. Better yet, wait and take your seat after the break.