“Friends with Penalties” Scores Mostly Hits

The title for Theatre Unleashed’s latest bouquet of short plays is clever and ominous (and fits well alongside the troupe’s main play, Boy Gets Girl, reviewed below).  The late-night playlets are all clever, though only a couple fulfill the title’s ill omen.

friends

In Sammi Lappin’s Time to Run, a tense couple tries to tackle  a topic that may split them.  Poised twixt fight and flight are Jase Lindgren’s comic coward and Kire Horton, who finds many colors in “I’m almost out of here.” Lauren Holiday adds a sweetly unhooked third wheel.

Pacific Rain, by Gregory Crafts, stages another tense dialog.  On the eve of World War II, a blasé President Roosevelt (Jennifer Hood) misleads a surly reporter (Kimberly Jürgen), briefly interrupted by FDR crony Harry Hopkins (Lindsay Anne Braverman).

These two plays show how tricky tension can be.  In Time to Run, it’s kept so tremblingly high that the payoff almost fails to balance it.  In Pacific Rain, it’s too low: Everyone’s overly polite, and FDR’s mask of calm not only hides the truth, it also helps hide the stakes.

Both plays also pose the query of what a third party adds to a dialog. Comic relief (Time to Run)?  OK, but they’re funny already. Exposition (Pacific Rain)? Hopkins tells us nothing we don’t already know.

(And I wish director Carey Matthews would do something with Pacific‘s cross-casting:  It sits on the mantel, intriguing us, but is never fired.)

Jim Martka’s I Got a Woman does away with both the tension and the third character.  Instead we get a bleary romp, as a well-baked pair struggles to decode classic Beatles lyrics. Jude Evans’ loopy JoJo is deliciously grungy, and Elise Golgowski’s Julia slips from Caterpillar  bliss to sudden shrewdness in a way that’s endlessly amusing.

Things finally go dark in Now We Wait, as two men find themselves stuck — perhaps forever — in an anteroom. Sean Fitzgerald subtly crafts a mercurial Mark, who slowly grasps the situation, while Kyle (author Lee Pollero) seeks zen-like peace in an online game.

Brandie June’s Nights Like This also dwells between worlds. But Belle (Parissa Koo) and her idol, Lavacious Choice (Gordon Martin Meacham, in fine drag), share a lively comic encounter, throwing life in death’s face.  Belle’s friend (Braverman again) and mother (Denise Nicholson) embody more conventional responses to our mortality.

Liesl Jackson’s Are There Selfies in Heaven? stays on the afterworld’s front porch, pitching a wild farce. In mall-bred Jenna, Madeleine Miller sustains a commedia-like caricature that drives the tale — while driving us, her butler David (a prim Lee Pollero), and Satan himself (a volatile Tim Cakebread) to distraction.

As a company, Theatre Unleashed has made a serious commitment to new plays — in its Writers’ Group (which hatched all six of these plays) and its several short-play festivals. This supports not only writers, but also actors and directors, giving theatre artists ample opportunity to test and grow their talents, and be seen doing it.

Friends with Penalties offers no more than you would expect from brief plays, quickly crafted and swiftly brought to the stage. But it also offers no less — its six clever pieces provide a heady sampling of the ridiculously rich talent menu at LA’s best small theatres.
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Friends with Penalties:
Time to Run, by Sammi Lappin, dir. Bobby McGlynn.
Pacific Rain, by Gregory Crafts, dir. Carey Matthews.
I Got a Woman, by Jim Martyka, dir. Jeffrey Wylie.
Now We Wait, by Lee Pollero, dir. Jeff Soroka.
Nights Like This, by Brandie June, dir. Sean Fitzgerald.
Are There Selfies in Heaven?, by Liesl Jackson, dir. Brandie June.
Presented by Theatre Unleashed at the The Belfry Stage, 11031

Fridays and Saturdays at 11:00 pm, through May 9th.

Tickets: <www.theatreunleashed.org>