Theater: Fight to the Finish

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On the rare occasion you spot them in the daytime, theater critics are natural targets. Playwrights, actors and directors hate them especially: not for telling the truth, but for typically having the compassion of a prison guard in an execution chamber. Perhaps that’s why director Peter Brook once wrote that a critic serves the theater best “when he is hounding out incompetence.”

But Brook also wrote that critics understand incompetence best when they see it in themselves—by “putting his hands on the medium and attempting to work it himself.” And that’s the reason, in Series C of Ensemble Studio Theatre’s 30th annual marathon of new one-act plays, all eyes are on Michael Feingold’s “Japanoir.” As the Village Voice’s chief theater critic for over half my lifetime, Feingold is already known as a crackerjack translator and adaptor of other people’s plays, more so than a creator of original works. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that “Japanoir” is the only Series C piece with a program disclaimer: “This play is a Westerner’s fantasy/meditation on Japanese film…not an actual Japanese movie…”

Except “Japanoir” isn’t about film at all. It’s about how innocuous film looks when you plunk scenes from one down on a stage, like a craft from another aesthetic planet. In between dialogues with a fawning journalist (Leslie Ayvazian) and a Japanese director (Steven Eng) with a penchant for Confucian replies to direct questions, vignettes are witnessed from two of the man’s mythical masterpieces, Love Movie and Money Movie. Both develop similar themes, with seven characters ensnared in love stories, corporate intrigue and satires of Japanese social conventions amid Richard Hamburger’s brisk direction. Feingold has to clarify if the piece is satire, paean or both—one minute we laugh at a joke about a 17th-century Japanese playwright; the next we descend into a funk of discomfiting silence.

Meanwhile, other one-acts might benefit from Feingoldian ambiguousness. “Piscary,” by Frank D. Gilroy, is a too-precious two-hander in which He (Mark Alhadeff) and She (Diane Davis) quibble over fish, Scrabble and the fall of their relationship. I suspect the actors’ chemistry is explosive because director Janet Zarish won’t let them rest—not enough, anyway, to let Gilroy’s creaky construct show its rusty beams and trusses.

“In Between Songs,” by comedian Lewis Black, isn’t creaky at all; it’s just baked on marijuana. Chaz (Jack Gilpin) and Ed (David Wohl), business colleagues, and Grace (Cecilia DeWolf), one of their wives, do a doobie and discuss…whatever you discuss when you do a doobie. Do be careful not to read too much into a paranoia-driven sequence involving Stove Top stuffing—the play is still better than potatoes.

Unless you’re Lulu (Flora Diaz), the teenage tragedienne in José Rivera’s “Flowers,” that is. The poor girl has awful growths on her face. Her young brother Beto (Raul Castillo) has put down his video game long enough to sense his sister’s panic. As scenes pile up and Rivera’s lyrical writing wears you down, more and larger growths appear on Lulu until she’s literally a tree—vines, wood, branches and all. Nothing halts her metamorphosis into plant life—not sitting in the audience dreaming of Kafka, not Beto stealing drugs to save his sister. As the play’s lush language hits its poetical peak, and as director Linsay Firman’s staging nicely crescendos, we see Lulu, roots to the ground, offering shade from the sky.

From the heavens, finally, is Jacquelyn Reingold’s triumphant “A Very Very Short Play,” a satyr play. As characters, Roger (Adam Dannheissier) and Joan (Julie Fitzpatrick) seem as prosaic as those in Gilroy’s piece. But without overloading the actors on blocking—they’re sitting in airplane seats, after all—director Jonathan Bernstein invites Reingold’s ingenious conceit to strike us like lightning. Joan, you see, is but 12 inches tall; Roger is 12 feet tall. They meet, fall in love and share a luscious cream puff, among other foodstuffs Roger has placed in his enormous travel bag. A sweet end to a tasty night.

Through June 28. Ensemble Studio Theater, 549 W. 52nd St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.), 212-352-3101; $18.

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