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Eclipse Theatre Company

In an age of shrinking attention spans, when traditional three-act plays seem impossibly long and even long one-acts strain an audience's patience, it makes sense that ten-minute plays would become increasingly popular. A little longer than a Warner Brothers cartoon or about half the length of a sitcom episode sans commercials, the form presents no challenge for restless brains, while allowing playwrights some room for story, character development, and pithy dialogue.

In recent years ten-minute-play contests and workshops have sprung up across the country. The Actor's Theatre of Louisville sponsors such contests and presents ten-minute plays as part of its annual Humana Festival. Five times a year the Chicago-based Dramatists Workshop invites local playwrights to submit ten-minute plays, the best of which are given a reading. And three times a year New Tuners sponsors a "Ten-Minute Tuner" workshop, in which participants collaborate on very short musicals.

So it was inevitable that someone would put together an evening of ten-minute plays. What was not inevitable was that this show--Halfway Content, the inaugural production of the newly formed Eclipse Theatre Company--would be free of the sort of awkwardness, inhibition, and artistic self-indulgence that sinks most first productions.

Performing a mix of nine plays by well-known (Lanford Wilson, Steven Dietz), somewhat known (Neal Bell, Jane Anderson), and completely obscure (Robert Mohler, Tom Dwight) playwrights, with a minimum of props and special effects, the Eclipse ensemble proves itself equally adept at comedy and drama. I'm sure it helps that the miniature form forces writers to quickly and unambiguously establish both the tone and point of their plays--I doubt the show's six directors lost much rehearsal time trying to figure out what their plays were about. And I'm sure the limited span of each piece forced the actors to focus their energy.

Whatever the reason, even the weakest pieces (Daniel O'Brien's Guernica and Bell's Out the Window) were passably entertaining, while the strongest (Anderson's Lynette at 3 a.m. and Wilson's Eukiah) worked so well I was sorry they ended.

Ironically, the evening begins with O'Brien's murky, pretentious, prize-winning Guernica. Taking its title from Picasso's famous painting protesting Franco's bombing of the Spanish city, this play flirts with artiness--signified by dancelike movements and the wearing of black tights--and, for a second or two, politics. (In a moment critic Roland Barthes would have enjoyed, two characters indulge in an argument about whether names are arbitrary and changeable or inevitable and absolute.) But the play quickly settles into a portrait of a woman slipping into psychosis, while her insensitive husband watches helplessly, then pushes her in more deeply, and finally washes his hands of her.

Happily, the show also contains All Lines Down, written and directed by Robert Mohler, and Long Walk to Forever, a musical piece by Jeff Lazarus--both of which simply and humorously examine the difficulties of starting a relationship. The Mohler piece describes the anxiety two young people who kind of like each other feel when faced with the question of whether to call each other back. Lazarus's play, based on Kurt Vonnegut's sentimental short story about a young soldier who goes AWOL to persuade his childhood sweetheart to ditch her fiance and marry him, is more complicated and emotionally charged, which is reflected in the deft way the characters jump between sung and spoken text.

Mary Sue Price's That Midnight Rodeo, about a cowgirl trying to decide whether to end her career or abort her baby, falls somewhere between Guernica and Long Walk to Forever. At first Price approaches the question with the subtlety with which Hemingway treated the topic in "Hills Like White Elephants" (she's helped along by Amy Pietz's finely layered performance). But then she falls into painful didacticism, forcing her characters to say things they say only on made-for-TV movies and deflating the dramatic tension of the first half: "I have to do this now. I have spent my whole life getting here."

Price would have done well to study Lanford Wilson's taut drama Eukiah, well directed by Jennie Israel, about a conversation between the co-owner of a horse-breeding farm and a simpleminded stable boy (ably played by Scott Haven and Josh Fox). It crackles with barely concealed insidious intent.

The only piece that comes close to Eukiah is Anderson's bit of comical, magical realism, Lynette at 3 a.m., ably directed by Haven. It concerns a chronic insomniac who finds herself discussing the mysteries of the heart with a recently murdered man on his way to heaven in the middle of the night. But it's not what these two talk about when they talk about love that makes this play so touching; it's the strong rapport Jennie Israel (Lynette) and Andrew Rothenberg (the ghost) establish. We really get the sense that the ghost has imparted some satisfying spiritual message to Lynette.

Pale by comparison are the last three plays in the show: Macadamia Nuts, Tom Dwight's mildly diverting but cliched study of a pregnant woman's craving for unusual food; After You, Steven Dietz's somewhat poignant dialogue between two ex-lovers who still sort of yearn for each other; and Neal Bell's pretentious Out the Window, which begins by promising more than it can deliver (an urban-based magical realism) and ends by revealing what we have already guessed. As he did in his lead-footed attempt at lyricism, Ragged Dick, Bell spends more time trying to show how poetic he is than in being poetic. In the piece--about an impotent paraplegic who somehow in the middle of a drunken fuck with his wife magically manages to ejaculate, to fly, and to transport their Central Park West apartment to the country--the at times touching relationship between wife and husband takes a backseat to the heavy-handed metaphors: erection equals magic, orgasm equals flight, physical disability equals dysfunctional spirituality. Of course, no matter how annoying and obvious Bell's play may be, it's also blessedly short. And sometimes brevity is the next best thing to wit.


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