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An Excellent Museum of Dysfunction IV from Mildred's Umbrella Leaves Us Wanting More

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The setup:

Here's an enticing little Christmas present from Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company -- an evening of short new plays -- that doesn't even require batteries, they're already supplied. Nor do you have to think about how suitable the gift is; some part of it will fit everybody, so there's something for everyone. And if you don't like what you've just seen, maybe the next will fit you better. There's even a return policy. The company received so many submissions it has stretched the festivities into two different programs.

The execution:

There's yet to be a festival of new works that's sensational from start to finish, but Museum, certainly Group I, has more than enough pleasure to pique interest in a visit to see Group II. None of these short plays falls flat, and there are no outright clunkers, so somebody at Mildred is doing a fine editing job. To be expected at such festivals are the one-note skits, the psychologically surreal riffs, and the jabs at the war between the sexes, but we don't expect such constant entertainment from these age-old chestnuts.

The acting is particularly fine throughout, enhancing the playwrights' intentions much more than hiding or overwhelming them. And once again we learn, like in Playwriting 101, how difficult it is to sustain interest, character, and cohesive structure in even a work that lasts no longer than two minutes. By all accounts, the theater is in fine shape.

If you like your drama a little on the chilled side, there's Jae Kramisen's Cycles of the Moon, a Halloween delight for two weird grownup sisters in bloody nightgowns and Baby Jane curls (Melissa Mumper and Jackie Lovell) who whisper and change personae and talk of unseen, forbidden things - like the death of Mommy and Daddy.

Or perhaps you'd fall for You are My Sunshine, a peculiar little shocker which runs only as long as it takes the two actresses to sing it (Leighza Walker and Victoria Pasat).

Joe Wozny's Letter to an Ex is what you might expect, as a disgruntled George (Norm Dillon) writes his heart out repeatedly, but is saved by Dillon's ever more drunk typing.

Rent a Man, by Alvaro Saar Rios, is wry commentary on what women want (thanks to spirited performances from Ashley Allison and Séan-Patrick Judge, it must be true that listening to Broadway show tunes can cause the death of a real man).

Fortunately there's Julia Sweeney, as a clueless guard, to brighten up the allegory of Gregory Bonsignore's earnest Us and Them.

But the highlight from Group I has to be Stoned Apples by James McLindon. Invigorated by a particularly hilarious take by Brandon Dinklage as a very stoned dude, he and fellow dude, who just happens to be a Cortland apple, solve the woes of the world. It's a slacker's paradise of a play and an actor's golden opportunity. Inside his own glorious stoner haze, Dinklage runs amok. He could probably high-five himself if his eyes ever focused. The play is its own high and gives us a sweet contact buzz.

The verdict:

Evenings devoted to new short plays are acts of discovery, whether it's a fledgling playwright you've never heard of or a familiar actor showing us new facets of the craft. These evenings usually amaze, sometimes stupefy, but always leave us wanting more. Museum of Dysfunction does all this in a fascinating little package that anyone interested in the theater would want to tear into. Merry Christmas.

The evening of short works runs through December 10 at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak. Purchase tickets online -- and see which plays are in Groups I and II -- at www.mildredsumbrella.com or www.obsidianartspace.org.

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