Summer Short Shorts: 10x10 at Country Playhouse

The setup: Ten playwrights, ten new plays, each ten minutes long.

The execution: Somebody needs to teach these writers how to concoct an ending. Not the type where a character hangs up the phone or walks off stage and the scene just stops, like in Beverly Hutchison's The Prize Surprise or Raymond Terry's obliquely strange Strangers. In John Kaiser's Isn't It Geomantic, time stops, but for no good reason to the story. No, I mean a satisfactory conclusion to what's gone before, a final wrap-up that means something to the characters in the scene.

It's harder than you think to write a mini-play. Short stories for the stage are delicate creatures -- too much information and they stumble, too little and they fall flat on their face. Ten minutes can seem like an eternity when characters vamp or repeat themes. Even the most subtly acted, Miriam Friedman's A Discussion of the "L" Word, with Jeffrey Dorman and Melanie Martin, who depict a long-term relationship which finally hits the rocks, peters out just when it gets interesting; by the eighth minute they've returned to formerly charted territory.

The audience favorite, by far, seemed to be Joe Barnes's mordantly comic The Surgeon General's Warning, which should be the last word about the deleterious effects of cigarette smoking, although it, too, travels nimbly through a long-term relationship and makes us care about two old coots, Louise (B. Renda) and husband Joe (G. Allen Mack), at their final stop at a hospice for the terminally ill. We want more of these two with their bickering and sharp elbows to the ribs. It's like watching the last days of Albee's George and Martha as they one-up each other even when describing their fatal illnesses. B. Renda has an almost psychotic connection to her character. "I never sleep," she boasts to a newbie patient (Anita Darby), then quickly prods her slower, sicker husband, who immediately wets himself.

The odd coupling displays a great love between them, which plays like Molière next to the low-rent, sleazy bathroom humor of Montezuma and Me, which incomprehensibly has two writers (Lauren Tunnell and Kris Verdeyen), neither of whom is Kaufman nor Hart. Honeymoon groom (Bob Galley) sits on a toilet at a Mexican resort and is visited by the spirit of the Aztec emperor (Robert Meza). It's supposed to be about commitment and marriage vows -- you know, through sickness and health -- but it's fourth-grade nose-picking silliness, if that good, and except for a fleeting moment when Montezuma preens his feathered headdress in a mirror, there's not a scintilla of genuine humor. By the way, this play doesn't have a satisfactory ending, either.

The verdict: Not the best 10 X 10 ever, but it's always a real theatrical adventure to see what people are writing about. And there are certain playwrights we shall not forget.

Through August 28. Country Playhouse, 12302 Queensbury Lane. 713-467-4497.

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