Four Finalists and Six Winners: The Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival

After a weekend spent in the Mid-Hudson Valley sunshine, I headed back into the city Sunday night to check out the Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival over at The Lion on Theater Row. While I was, of course, interested in seeing the plays and critiquing the performances, mostly I wanted to find out what it was that the people at Samuel French think made something the best of roughly 1,000 entries. These are people who know their drama, I figured: they’ve been publishing since 1830. At the very least, seeing the plays they chose for inclusion in their yearly publication would be educational.

The day was split into sections, and each section brought three or four of the short plays to the stage. I attended the final session, and the four plays I saw were FAN BOY by Megan Sass, A MAP OF OUR COUNTRY by Andrew Kramer, DANCE LESSONS by Josh Koenigsberg and THE BEAR (A TRAGEDY) by EJC Calvert.

First there was FAN BOY, a play about a man with a secret identity. It was funny and entertaining, but completely unsuited to stage; this is a piece that would be racking up major views if it were available online, thanks to its built-in audience of comic and sci-fi fans who are able, as smash hit THE BIG BANG THEORY proves, to laugh at ourselves. Moreover, FAN BOY on film would allow the audience to appreciate more fully the struggle the protagonist goes through as he tries not to let his temper get out of control over the course of his live-in-assistant’s interrogation and flirtatious condemnation of his lifestyle choices and favorite comic book heroes.

Next, A MAP OF OUR COUNTRY, which looks at a Palestinian couple torn apart by war and prejudice. Set in Palestine and featuring gentle, specific performances, this piece about two Palestinian lovers – one living, one convinced he is about to die – gathered intensity slowly and falteringly. In the end, while the writing was strong, this is a play that needed more variation in pace and pitch in order to truly compel. If properly developed, this play could become a stunning full-length piece that examined love, religion, masculinity and the brutalized youth of war-torn countries

After that, DANCE LESSONS, with bleak humor and endearing honesty in its portrayal of a small-town waitress and the short-order cook who has a crush on her. Unlike A MAP OF OUR COUNTRY, which seemed too short a play to tackle such large subjects in a way that granted real satisfaction, DANCE LESSONS was an appropriate size for its theme, and the punchy jokes and witty crafting of this work, as well as the physical theatricality of Koenigsberg’s writing.  Perhaps no moment among these plays was quite so endearing as the one where his short-order cook clears the floor and performs an intricate modern dance routine.

Finally, reanimating the corpse of Christopher Durang, THE BEAR (A TRAGEDY)  was funny, but relied heavily on the staging and performances to communicate its message. I’d like to see a copy of the script, since it can be hard to figure out whether the resulting production was a result of the script or the direction. It was certainly funny, but twenty-four hours after seeing it produced, I’m not sure that my life was changed or improved by seeing it. Along with DANCE LESSONS, though, THE BEAR (A TRAGEDY) was one of the winning scripts of the evening.

What I can say is that both THE BEAR (A TRAGEDY) and DANCE LESSONS provide ample material for drama students, theater companies, and college professors trying to teach their students what sells. I can’t speak for the other plays that won, but these two were easy-to-swallow and skillfully constructed, if creaking with occasion lags in pace. Not only do I imagine they’d be fun to produce and perform, but they don’t ask much of their audience members except that they sit back and enjoy the ride.

My overall impression of the Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival? Worth going to if you’re looking for some interesting pieces to think about, and the production values – particularly among the performers – are high. These are short, cerebral, progressive plays that will be well received by wide audiences, and by seeing the finals then watching out for who wins, budding writers will get an idea of what kinds of pieces the publisher might be seeking as winners in the future.

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7 Responses to Four Finalists and Six Winners: The Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival

  1. andrewswriting says:

    Hi there! Andrew Kramer here, playwright of “A Map of Our Country”. Just wanted to thank you for attending the show and writing up some thoughts about it! We playwrights really appreciate it! Keep seeing and writing about theatre! 🙂

    • Hi Andrew! Thanks, I wonder, do you have any plans to develop “A Map of Our Country” further? Lots of interesting ideas, if you do take it further I’d be interested to hear where it goes.

      • andrewswriting says:

        Aside from a few minor changes, the play is finished. As I am a young playwright, and this is my first NYC show, I can admit that I am quite pleased with it and the way the production turned out. While I understand the want for “more” in terms of length, I really do believe in my bones that this is a short play.

        It’s a challenging form, the short play is, and it was never my intention to write something easy to digest. I don’t want audiences to sit back and enjoy, I want them to keep up and think about the issues on stage. So while there may have been pace and pitch issues, the play will remain a 25 min. piece.

        Again, thanks so much for supporting new works! It’s greatly appreciated and I look forward to reading more of your thoughts! See you at the theatre!

        🙂

  2. J says:

    Hi. I just came across this interesting critique. I actually worked on the production of “Skin Deep,”another winner. I happened to catch this final round of performances and was particularly intrigued with “The Bear.” I am not sure it was the direction that just made this play excellent. I think this writer has something very special. I agree that my life was not changed from this play, but in the 30 or so minutes that I watched it, I was completely taken away and I think that says a lot. I thought the female actress was very skilled in comedy. It seemed as if she wrote this role for her. I was wondering if that was the case. I also thoroughly enjoyed “A Map of Our Country” and would also love to see this as a full length.

    • I really enjoyed the first section of the play – I thought it was a marvellous, Albee-esque sort of piece. But over the course of the play, it started to feel like more of a one-trick pony; the promise of the first few minutes, for me, just never materialized. But like I said, I’d be interested in seeing the script on the page and finding out what were the directorial choices and what were the playwright’s. Interesting question about the actress; if you find out I’d be interested to know.

  3. J says:

    Yes. Albee-esque is certainly what it was. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but that’s what it was. I do think that short plays, particularly comedies, are usually okay when they essentially have one trick. I think there was more to this play, perhaps some deeper, more serious messages. The whole religion motif and perhaps abuse in marriage. I did read the bio of the writer who mentioned that she was mocking the kitchen sink drama. Looking at it that way, makes it even more interesting to me. What did you think of the actress and the other two? I thought all three of them were strong. I’ll look into whether the role was written for the actress.

  4. Thanks, let me know what you find out. 🙂

    I think you’ve hit it exactly – I think there was more to this play, a deeper, more serious message…but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out, in one viewing, what it was. While I agree that some of the funniest comedic short plays are one-note jokes, and have certainly seen great examples of that…my feeling is that when a writer starts implying to their audience that there’s something deeper going on, through the use of religious iconography or metaphor or shamanic possession or whatever else, it’s a bit like Chekov’s gun – don’t put it out there unless it’s going to serve a purpose.

    All of which goes back to my original point about this play and the competition. Samuel French is a publishing company, and to truly judge the play as written versus as produced, I’d want to see a copy of the script and understand how the director made the decisions they did.

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