Friday, October 7, 2016

Airport Encounters (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

One way to increase the quality of an evening of what I call "playlets" i.e. ten minute plays, is to unite them with a theme.  Not sure why that works but it does.

The Neo Ensemble Theatre's Airport Encounters proves a case in point.  Ten little plays, all taking place at an airport waiting for flights (many delayed) from Encounter Airlines (a nice touch). Honestly, they do not make up a uniformly fine night of theatre.  What they do, however, create is a night of entertainment, with individual shows never once becoming bad or even mediocre, while some of just little gems.

Connections by Jessica Matthews for example tells of an accountant who meets a soap star while mutually waiting for a flight that neither one wants to make on an airline neither one would choose.  The plot resembles something akin to a sitcom, but veers more into what almost might be a romantic comedy.  Or perhaps the start of one.  Thanks in no small part to Jerry Weil and Marina Palmer as the two strangers getting to know one another, we end up rather hoping something clicks.  Romantically?  Yeah, that would be nice.  But even a real friendship would feel nice--and one imagines that a real possibility.

Hedgehog and Mustard by Larry Gene Fortin ended up my least favorite, but for entirely personal reasons.  Kelly Hawthorne and Carol Herman do a fine job portraying a mother and daughter who frankly have no way to communicate with one another save by bickering.  Not a premise I am at all likely to enjoy, but that is on me.  It isn't as if there wasn't some poignancy as well as humor enacted.  Nor have I even one complaint to make about the actors.  But--not my cup of tea. Your mileage may vary.  Probably will.  The rest of the audience laughed more than I did (and to be fair--I sometimes did laugh).  So--on me.

Border Towns by Starina Johnson left comedy behind in favor of some drama, with Tracy Elliott and Charles Howerton as strangers whose meeting seems providential.  One turns out to be a housewife struggling (on many levels) with cancer, the other a very experienced oncologist with some ultimately welcome words of wisdom.  This playlet confronts one of the most terrifying of all realizations -- that of Death.  Not in abstract.  Not as a terrible accident that takes a loved one.  But a ticking clock that will take all you are, all you ever might be.  Refreshingly, this one didn't become anything like a polemic about having faith in modern medicine and trusting one's doctors.  Nor did it champion alternative therapies.  Rather, it showed the old doing what in theory they should always be doing--sharing what they've learned.

The Statistician by Beth Polsky framed what looked like a sudden romantic triangle born out of terror of flying.  Linden East has far too many statistics of airplane disaster on his mind to feel comfortable actually getting aboard one--much to the despair of his girlfriend Sheila Sawhny.  They are after all supposed to be going on vacation!  Enter Abby Kammeraad-Campbell as an attractive young woman with an equally vast knowledge of such disastrous data!  And with her comes comfort as well as jealousy.  This one did go the sitcom route, which proved fine and certainly all three actors did their jobs with aplomb.  I did find myself longing for a twist--and not the one we got.

Therapy Dog by Scott Mullen on the other hand veered into the hilariously perverse and surreal, without quite reaching the level of PG-13.  We're talking weird yet weirdly believable.  Exactly the alley I like to walk down given the chance!  Steve Oreste is passenger intensely nervous about flying, chatting with equally fearful Nancy Van Iderstine, when Anthony Marquez enters as...the title character. No, he isn't really a dog.  He just becomes one as part of his job.  And if that isn't deliciously bizarre enough, Mimi Umidon enters with her own...kinky...interest in the situation.  I cannot describe it further without spoiling, so simply take my word about how well this one works!

Simple Air by Nancy Van Iderstine ended up my personal fave of the ten.  David St. James and Kathleen Cecchin play an Amish couple, waiting for their first ever airplane ride. Well, they have to go if they are to be there for a family emergency.  What follows is a confession on the part of this very meek-seeming dutiful wife, about her recently breaking the rules.  For a good cause!  This already sounds funny, doesn't it?  Now let me reveal this evolves into a musical.  Yes, a ten minute musical.  A ten minute hip-hop musical complete with backup dancers!  'Nuff said.  If you're not tempted by that description, I don't know what to say.

Stuck by Scott Mullen proves a bit more subtly surreal but even more moving in the end. Nicole Rochell works at the airport coffee shop and has finally gotten the courage to inquire about a mysterious man, Brandon Meyer, who for months has shown up every single day then boarded a flight for Phoenix.  Then was there again.  And again.  And again.  For months!  So...what is going on? One can hardly blame the girl for pinching him just to make sure he isn't a ghost!  He is not.  Eventually he shares his story, leading her to share hers, and both discover they have one thing in common.  Both, as the title suggests, remain stuck.  I found myself quite moved by the connection these two strangers forged in the course of their conversation.  At the end, I felt genuine hope for them.  No small thing.

'Til Flight Do Us Part by Laura Huntt Foti ventured again into people bickering, a married couple played by Bob Telford and (again) Marina Palmier. Again, I watched with more patience than interest, despite the quality of the cast and frankly in spite of the genuine "flavor" of their interactions.  I suppose my own taste requires more than bickering to keep my interest.  For better and/or for worse, I'd rather see a glorious battle royale that unveils some truths about these characters.  As it was, I believed them.  I believed they themselves didn't know what happened to their marriage.  But I don't know either, didn't have a clue.  And their fighting seemed mundane, if at the same time totally truthful.

The Test by Rom Watson certainly had its moments.  Jason Paul Evans and Adam Ziv (whom I've seen before and is splendid) play are a couple of college students/pals returning from Spring Break.  Only the latter is distracted by doubts in his mind over whether he's gay or not.  His friend offers to give him "the test" to find out for certain.  Lots of potential there, if not exactly ground-breaking given the format.  Both performers were good, the script certainly seemed witty enough.  Yet in the end--and this is one of those things almost impossible to nail down or predict sometimes--the ten minute show lacked something vital.  Frankly I felt zero sexual tension between them.  Without it, the play failed to sizzle, and frankly also the ending then came out of nowhere.  Then again, maybe these two were having an off night?

Mead and Stu at the Airport by Rom Watson had plenty of sizzle, as well as gentleness and humor and considerable charm.  Elliott Mayer and Donaco Smyth play the title characters, a pair of janitors keeping each other company as they work what seems to be the midnight shift.  Their friendship proves extremely real, even as Stu proves to have...well, a unique way of viewing the world.  That Mead actually accepts this, rather than running for the hills, made me think of him as someone I want to be.  Simple courage and compassion, kindness and taking weird ideas seriously simply because your friend has them--well, isn't that truly heroic?  More, we can in theory achieve that level of heroism without once going into combat, donning a cape or wielding a light saber.  I found myself very touched by this wonderful union of script with performers.

Airport Encoutners plays Fridays and Saturdays at 9pm, Sundays at 2pm at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd (one block east of Vine), Los Angeles CA 90038 until October 16, 2016.

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