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Keeping It Short Isn’t Always Child’s Play

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The notion of 10-minute plays may strike some as a busman’s holiday for a playwright, until you start thinking about what a 10-minute play is not. The assignment (made nationally famous at the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville) is not to write a 10-minute scene. It is not to write a sample script for sitcom producers. It is not to write a setup for a play-to-be.

What it is, is a little like writing haiku (also deceptively simple, also painfully hard to do). Too often, evenings (or in the case of the performance reviewed, afternoons) of 10-minute plays are less haiku and more high-concept. Their high failure rate is testimony to their difficulty.

“Six at Eight,” the third annual 10-minute collection care of the South Orange County Community Theatre, has neither a high failure rate nor any dazzlers. The group of plays by new and seasoned playwrights is middling, far from groundbreaking but also generally free of glib cuteness.

The program includes the top three prize-winners from the theater’s 10-minute-play contest, led by Pamela Klarup’s occasionally cute “Funeral Girls,” directed by Edith M. Schwartz. Barbara (Odette Derryberry) and Rose (Suzanne Chapman) discover that they both were married to the same man, who now is in a funeral home coffin. Klarup is less interested in pursuing a line of absurdist comedy (her play seems to start off as a homage to Eugene Ionesco) than in finding out how these women become friends. It’s not the most interesting choice, but it comes off as charming.

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The contest runner-up is Curt Webster’s “The Sitting,” directed by the program’s producer, Jill Forbath. Modeling for a painter (Dawn Decker), Clifford (Todd Fuessel) obviously is uncomfortable posing clothed only in a white dropcloth. But Webster makes him oddly inexpressive about what he really is feeling, leaving it to Decker’s artist to go on about how nervous she was posing the first time. Webster’s ideas about art sound as unformed as his dialogue is unpolished, and Decker’s flat reading is no help.

Far superior, but having to settle for third place, is Eleanor Brook’s “Going Up,” which veers close to but never steps over the line into sitcom silliness under Aaron Charney’s direction. Brook craftily reveals that her two women, stuck on a broken office elevator, are actors auditioning for the same role. Lisa Slam’s April is allergic, jumpy and vulnerable to Cynthia Downey’s wilier Susannah, who takes the Boy Scout “be prepared” motto very seriously. As a metaphor for the ruthlessness of showbiz, Brook’s 10 minutes (her play is one of the few that clocks in on time) are acute and pointed.

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Inserted between these new pieces are three published 10-minuters, starting with Michael Bigelow Dixon and Val Smith’s “Breaking the Chain,” directed by Marti Hood. Spinning off the old idea of what would happen if you really did break an ominous sounding chain letter, this comedy poses skeptic Jessica (Kerene Cogan) against her friendly, lovey-dovey neighbor couple, Chuck (Mike Roth) and Beth (Lori Williams). Having kept the chain going, Chuck and Beth suddenly are winning contests and cash prizes galore but are desperately concerned that Jessica will die if she breaks it. The three actors share good charisma, but Hood’s staging could be much more darkly imaginative.

Bob Manning’s “What Wasn’t Said, What Didn’t Happen,” directed by Gigi Fusco, begins as a mild satire of Tony Robbins-style motivational sessions (led by Richard Meese’s smarmy Michael, an “expert” on communication skills, with Roxanne Belmore and Marco Orsini as his aides). It then veers in the more predictable direction of revealing what a sorry communicator Michael really is, and how hot Belmore is for him. Manning’s play ends up stuck somewhere between thoughtful and funny, certainly far short of its satiric potential.

Louisville’s own Jane Martin (long rumored to be the nom de plume of Actors’ Theatre founder Jon Jory) caps things off with the slight “Pomp and Circumstance,” about the pressures a patron king (Tom Scott) puts on a genius but brown-nosing composer (B. Aaron Cogan). Fortunately, neither director B.J. Scott nor the actors take this as anything more than a mild lark and keep their tongues in their cheeks.

* “Six at Eight,” Camino Real Playhouse, 31776 El Camino Real, San Juan Capistrano. Friday-Sunday, 8 p.m. Ends Sunday. $10. (714) 489-8082. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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A South Orange County Community Theatre production of 10-minute plays, directed by Edith M. Schwartz, Marti Hood, Jill Forbath, Gigi Fusco, Aaron Charney and B.J. Scott. Produced by Forbath. Lights: Phil Blandin. Set: George Bolta and Tom Scott.


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