Stage review: Theatre Festival in Black & White pleases and entertains

For many of the 10 brief plays in the ninth Theatre Festival in Black & White, you can't tell whether the playwright is white or black. All we know is that there are five of each, that plays by white authors have black directors and vice versa, and that actors are whatever ethnicity the playwright or director determined.

This is all to the good, right? So in these brief reviews, I ignore color except for the three plays where it's important to the plot.

An unspoken difficulty in dealing with 10 plays is their variability, both in writing and performance. But taken as a whole, both groups of five (each offered as a separate program with a separate admission) are entertaining, with variety of subject, mode (comic, tragic) and even ability adding to the pleasure.

The two programs are labeled A and B simply to distinguish them -- you can see them in either order.

Theatre Festival in Black & White

Where: Pittsburgh Playwrights at 937 Liberty Ave., Downtown.

When: Through Nov. 17. Program A: Nov. 9, 10, 15 (8 p.m.), 11 (7 p.m.), 17 (4 p.m.); Program B: Nov. 8, 16, 17 (8 p.m.), 10 (4 p.m.), 11 (3 p.m.).

Tickets: $15-$25;, 412-377-7803 or at the door.

Program A

The slightest plays of Program A are Mike Schwartz's "The Tool," directed by Ron Black, and Judy Meiksin's "Styrofoam Cup," directed by Myneesha Miller-King. The first shows a professor obsessed with a bad review on, in spite of his therapist's attempts to help. In the second, a grandmother and granddaughter meet professionally to argue about the ecological effects of nuclear power. Both have twist endings -- the first, surreal, the second, hopeful.

Eva Diodatie's "Diseased," directed by Lissa Brennan, is a chilling werewolf profile involving an alluring woman (Ms. Brennan, stepping in very effectively at the last minute with script in hand) and a susceptible young doctor (Andy Kirtland). Set in Victorian England, it has some effective if derivative chills and shudders.

Ted Elrick's "Bridge City," directed by Vendell Nasir II, is a simple parable about the value of life, such as you might read in a "Mary Worth" comic strip but given zest by a twist: The eccentric stranger (Harrison Single) who talks the young woman (Felicia Cooper) out of suicide is really a ghost. We learn this from the strangest character, a bridge enthusiast and ghost hunter (Alyse Hogan) who frames the play.

The most charming play of the festival is Devonne Goode's "The Vows," directed by Kaitlin Mausser. It should even have a future life, if there is any such thing for a 20-minute play. In alternating scenes we see a nervous bride (Jamilah Muhammed) and groom (Lamar Fields) dressing for the big event, tended to by a sensible, supportive maid of honor (Cheryl White) and best man (LaTrea Rembert).

There's plenty of humor and insight in how their nervousness works out, parallel but with differences, and the four actors never overact but let their characters speak for themselves. But I'd shorten the final vows they arrive at -- they're overwritten in a way that betrays the naturalness of the rest of the play.

Program B

The least of these five plays is the first, Alexis Payne's "Perception," directed by Kyle Bostian. In a coffee shop, a young black woman (Brittany Jovan) is entrapped in conversation by an aggressive man (Mr. Kirtland) reading a book ostentatiously titled "The Irony of Race." He's so irritating and illogical I wonder why she puts up with it, and I don't believe the final twist, which comes without evidence or conviction.

It's followed by Les Abromovitz's "The Home Stretch," directed by Kim El, a comic character study of two, and then three, elderly Jewish women bemoaning life in a retirement home -- mainly, the absence of good-looking men. Claire Fraley, Anne Louise Feeny and Staci Backauskas play it simply, proving again that the essence of comedy is timing.

The ante is raised with Pat Golden's "Casual Fridays," directed by Michael Moats, an ambitious small play about three men (Mr. Kirtland, Mr. Nasir and Mauricio Acousta) on a subway platform along with a mysterious duffel bag. There have been bombings. One of the three, who turns out to be Jewish, officiously calls a couple of cops, who start grilling the other two -- one black, one Hispanic. Ugly racial attitudes emerge. Then there's a twist. And then another. The play tries to do too much too quickly, but it gets under your skin.

After that, we're ready for a laugh, and Ray Werner's "Redneck Revenge," directed by Tracey Turner, is happy to oblige. Somewhere in the South, two blacks (Leslie "Ezra" Smith and Ms. Muhammed) show up at the pre-funeral viewing of an important white bigot and convince his three grown children (T.C. Brown, Ms. Brennan and the especially unpleasant Bill Driscoll) that they are their daddy's black children. The resulting discomfort is a delight.

Program B ends with the most ambitious play of the festival, Marlon Youngblood's "Comfort Zone," directed by Mark Whitehead. There's been a murder in the small grocery run by Checkers (Anthony Chisholm). Slick (a very fine Edwin Lee Gibson) and the Rev. Worthy (Mark Southers) are full of good advice. Then comes a face-off between the mother and father (Cheryl El-Walker and Monn Washington) of the two young men involved.

It feels something like the Montagues and Capulets in "Romeo and Juliet," with Checkers as the Friar. A pox on both your houses, we might cry. But Checkers steers the antagonists through the complex backstory. Mr. Chisholm lends the play the grizzled authority he has shown in the August Wilson plays he has done on Broadway. As with many one-acts, the ending is too pat, but everyone plays with believability and care.


Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: First Published November 6, 2012 5:00 AM


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