A smartly written, unsettling theatrical sampler in Wellfleet
WELLFLEET - "Shortstack," a new collection of six short plays by Rolin Jones, comes in two flavors: weirdly slight and more than slightly weird.
Perhaps this is what comes of starting out as a playwright - Jones's "Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow" was a 2006 Pulitzer finalist - and then moving to Los Angeles to write for "Weeds." And it's not necessarily a bad thing.
Like "Jenny Chow," this theatrical sampler plate is smartly written, casually satirical, and interestingly unsettling. Again like "Jenny Chow," it's getting a zippy, irreverent production by director Brendan Hughes at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater's original, funky shack of a theater (in contrast to WHAT's spanking-new building on Route 6), now known as the Harbor Stage.
Unlike "Jenny," however, "Shortstack" doesn't quite add up to a fully satisfying theatrical experience. Partly that may be because it's not intended to: It feels more like an evening's amusement for young hipsters, something they'd probably
But it's also because, though the six separate pieces share a certain cynical perspective on the human condition (and specifically the American human condition), they never really cohere into an organic whole.
So, while the failed-prom-queens-on-a-rampage of "Ron Bobby Had Too Big a Heart," the extreme-badminton dudes of "Extremely," the vicious schoolgirls of "Chronicles Simpkins Will Cut Your Ass," and the opossums facing an existential crisis (no, really) of "The Mercury and the Magic" are all entertaining in their way, it is a little hard to see how these comic caricatures have ended up sharing a bill with the two extremely weird pieces that land in the middle of the program, "Sovereignty" and "Advice to Another in a Long Line of Idiot Children."
"Sovereignty" begins simply enough, with the lively Stacy Fischer as a tightly wound housewife, Louise, tending her perfect tulips and gossiping about the neighbors. So far, so suburban - and so far, just the kind of breezy but amusing satire that the preceding two pieces, and Jones's other work, have set us up to expect. Then it takes an odd turn - again, not an unexpected development from a playwright who had an adopted girl build a robot named Jenny Chow to seek out her birth mother in China because she was too agoraphobic to leave the house herself.
But the tone shifts so drastically here that it unmoors us: Gradually we realize that the whole piece is a metaphor of sorts, as Louise willfully ignores the screams and thumps emanating from behind a neighbor's front door. (She also ignores the postcards piling up in her mailbox, the ones from around the globe that say "Help us.") She wants to save the world, she tells us, she's a do-gooder at heart, but she just can't think of a single darn thing she can do. OK, we get it, but it's an awfully heavy-handed way to say something simple.
At least it ultimately makes sense, unlike "Advice . . .," which has a young man roped to a chair, holding a goldfish bowl, as his mother (energetically played by Brenda Withers) delivers a monologue of absurd parental wisdom. It's intermittently funny, it's persistently strange, and what it all means - especially the Beckett-wannabe setting and ending - is more than I can tell you.
It's the kind of oddity that either amuses you or doesn't. Me, not so much, at least not as the unexpectedly heavy meat in a sandwich of sketches.
But there's no denying that Jones has an unusual and inventive theatrical mind. So as long as Hughes wants to stage him at WHAT (where, by the way, Hughes is the "impresario" of the whole Harbor Stage season, directing Fischer, Withers, and the equally talented Jonathan Fielding and Robert Kropf in every play), I'll keep coming back for more.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.