Short plays are under a lot of pressure. There's no time to dither: Playwrights and performers alike must set their characters in motion and get on with it.
The task is a lot trickier than it looks, which is perhaps why only half of the eight playlets that make up Centastage's cleverly labeled "Plays on Tap" program - all are centered in bars or restaurants - really deliver. That's true despite the best efforts of director Joe Antoun (a longtime champion of local writers) and a competent, adaptable seven-actor ensemble. Still, all the scenarios, even the flawed ones, are worth seeing, and the dim-sum-style pacing means that you never have to wait long for a piece that might pique your interest.
The very best skit - Patrick Gabridge's "Lies, Lies, Lies" - tops the program, setting up subsequent disappointment. Becca A. Lewis, who has shined in recent productions at Chelsea's Apollinaire Theatre, plays a hostile cafe patron put off by the friendly overtures of a young man (Michael Pfaff) who asks to share her table. Instantly assessing her animosity as the result of a recent breakup, he proposes a novel gambit: Instead of turning out to be a liar (his take on her view of men), he'll start out as one, so there'll be no surprises. The surprise is how funny and intricate his inverted overtures become, and how she can't help being intrigued and delighted, even as she lies right back at him.
George Sauer's "Crab Legs," though based on a seemingly flimsy premise, is likewise a hoot. Tonya Harding (an appropriately intense Amanda Collins) is lunching with her bodyguard and manager (Carl Schwaber and Steve Triebes), pre-Kerrigan whack. When Harding is not demonstrating her killer moves or deriding her rival ("She's got one friggin' move!"), Collins slips out to become the smart-mouthed waitress who inadvertently gives the goons their game plan.
Karla Sorenson's "The Watering Hole" - set in "a happening cocktail bar" - is a weak link reminiscent of innumerable sitcoms. Kate (Lisa Tucker, playing too large for the space), an old hand at the manhunt game, is trying to coach her newly single 45-year-old friend Judy (a cutely awkward Kathy Manfre) in the finer points of the pickup. You can see the "ironic" ending coming a mile away.
Susan Leonard's "Break" - about two adult sisters discussing, over a game of pool, their childhoods and their dad's recent defection from the family - is a departure, and a mini coup. Comedies lend themselves easily to the short form, whereas it's really hard to compress a convincing drama into so brief a time span. Leonard, aided by the incisive quick-sketch portraits created by Lewis and Collins, manages to carry it off.
George Smart's "IDWYT" - the acronym stands for "I don't want you to" - is another comic winner, in which a gay couple (Pfaff and Schwaber) negotiate the boundaries of their relationship.
Joe Byers's "The Junior Banana-Boat Free-Balloon Special," set at a Woolworth's counter in 1961, is unfortunately maudlin as well as murky. Lewis convincingly portrays a child, but Byers seems to have borrowed the character of her gambler father (Schwaber) from some lesser Dickens work. And is the waitress played by Manfre merely solicitous or criminally creepy?
Monica Raymond's "Novices" is like a heavy-handed S&M replay of the far more charming "Lies, Lies, Lies." Tucker plays a rather dominant submissive trying to get her overly accommodating partner (Triebes) to act tough. You'll have to laugh at her choice of a "safe word," though: It makes that deli scene in "When Harry Met Sally. . ." look downright subdued.
Andrew Clarke's "Breakfast With Harvey" - in which a Hollywood big shot (Schwaber) throws a fit over a plate of cold pancakes - isn't strictly new: It had more punch as Centastage's entry at the 2005 Boston Theatre Marathon. Rewarmed for the occasion, it makes for a dullish dessert.