Theater, Life and What Comes Next

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There is much to savor in Reflections: An Evening of Short Plays, currently running at Theatre Row’s Lion Theater. Presented by The Resonance Ensemble, the program is partly inspired by Samuel Beckett and Thornton Wilder, and offers world premieres of Ian Strasfogel’s Compromise, Alvin Eng’s Their Town and Michael Feingold’s What Happened Then , with revivals of Beckett’s Catastrophe and Anton Chekhov’s Swan Song. Though each work can stand on its own, all the dramas are thematically interconnected, and all are meditations on theater, life and what comes next.

The program starts with a bang. Compromise explores the relationship between a theatrical director (Bill Fairbairn) and producer (Christine Verleny) working on a production of Catastrophe. What makes the piece riveting is that we have a chance to see theater artists up close grappling with their egos and trying to balance their artistic integrity with commercialism. No problem, you say. But you are wrong. Beckett (meticulously played by David Arthur Bachrach) is standing like a statue just a few feet away in the park, listening with dismay to the theatrical blueprint for his work. It’s evident that the master is skeptical about the duo’s ambitious intentions, quite convinced that they have not come to any ripe understanding of his drama. Compromise is a work that taps deeply into Beckett’s dramatic landscape. Although it’s a play with its own premise and attitude, it is also an ingenious framing device for the revival of Catastrophe. Overall, it’s a very funny homage to Beckett, with lots of snap and crackle.

Catastrophe is second in the Reflections line-up. Director Eric Parness has seamlessly wedged the short play between the first and second scene of Compromise. We watch a revival of Catastrophe in real-time—and it’s re-enacted with panache. Beckett always found the right stage metaphors for his mood, and in this drama he brilliantly sets before us a metaphoric relationship between the actor and his fastidious director. The drama is only 10 minutes long, but we get a shrewd commentary on political power, manipulation and oppression. Though Catastrophe is considered a slight work in the Beckett canon, the one-act play still explodes with his genius.

Less successful is Their Town. A sequel to Wilder’s Our Town, this playlet lacks the poetry of the original. Eng’s piece shows a man and his nemesis meeting in the afterlife as they struggle for redemption. Harry Cloud (Todd Butera) and Terry Cave (Bill Fairbairn) are witty and amusing. But if you consider that Our Town is pure Americana, this new piece lacks that old-fashioned feel and centers more on power and politics than the human condition.

In Swan Song, Chekhov gives us the portrait of an aging actor at the end of his career, reprising his moments of glory in the theater. The actor in question is Svietlovidoff (Bill Fairbairn) and Ivanitch (David Arthur Bachrach) serves as his dutiful prompter. The setting is the stage of a country theater, and as we listen to Svietlovidoff recite some rousing passages of Shakespeare, we realize he is trying to reconcile his empty personal life with his sacrifices for the theater. This drama will either provoke smiles or tears from you. Perhaps both.

On a completely different tack is What Happened Then. Inspired by an 18th-century narrative, this piece shows how the fates of two men are inextricably bound together by uncanny coincidences over a span of 18 years. Ambrose Connor (Grant James Varjas) seems like a lost soul in search of a cocoon, and Richard McPherson (Todd Butera) appears to be spiritually adrift as well. The problem with the play is that it’s swamped with antiquated language. If you can tolerate the musty dialogue, its dramatic storytelling is winning.

To be sure, you can get only small-scale enlightenment from one-act plays, but taken as a whole, the bill has real emotional oomph. Helmed adroitly by Resonance Ensemble’s artistic director Eric Parness, the program is diverse and inventive. Or to borrow from a letter Chekhov once wrote: “As a rule little things are much better to write than big ones: they’re less pretentious, but still successful.”

Reflections: An Evening of Short Plays
Through June 6
The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St.
For tickets ($18), call 212-279-4200 or visit www.TicketCentral.com

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