REVIEW: 6th Annual 10×10 New Play Festival at Barrington Stage

by Gail M. Burns

Ten 10-minute plays – five before intermission and five after – helmed by two directors – Julianne Boyd and Matthew Penn – performed by a versatile ensemble of six actors – three male, three female – on a bare stage with only the most basic sets and costumes in the middle of February. This is the 10×10 New Play Festival at Barrington Stage Company, now in its sixth season and well established a welcome winter outing for locals and ski-bunnies alike.

This year’s ten plays were selected from close to 200 submissions, and I am happy to say that the majority of them are written by women. Gender parity is an ideal, but it is nice to see the women in the lead for a chance. All the plays are entertaining. Most lean towards comedy to make their point, but a couple are on the more thoughtful side.

But before we get to the plays themselves, mention must be made of the delightful Hamiltonian rap, written by actor Matt Neely, which opens the show. This has become an annual tradition and it alone is worth the price of admission. The cast wears a few bits of appropriately revolutionary dress, and Neely concludes the piece by striking Lin-Manuel Miranda’s signature Hamilton pose, which graces that show’s posters in silhouette.

This year the ten plays can fairly neatly be divided into five pairs that cover the same ideas and issues. So I will review them that way, as contrasting pairs. I have numbered the plays by the order in which they are performed.

#1 SANDBOX by Scott Mullen; directed by Julianne Boyd
Dina Thomas as Claire, Jane Pfitsch as Betsy, Matt Neely as Gabe, Douglas Rees as Rick

#10 DESK FORT by Annette Storckman; directed by Julianne Boyd
Jane Pfitsch as Samantha, Peggy Pharr Wilson as Valerie, Lucky Gretzinger as Greg, Matt Neely as Jon

The opening and closing shows – Sandbox by Scott Mullen and Desk Fort by Annette Storckman, both concern adults reverting to childhood pleasures as ways to relieve the stress of adult responsibilities. The titles explain exactly how. Sandbox was the stronger of the two, and frankly, one is enough in this genre. Both plays were too trite and predictable to be truly satisfying, although as an opener Sandbox was fun.

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Dina Thomas is horrified by the sight of two grown men – Matt Neely and Douglas Rees – playing with plastic dinosaurs in  Sandbox. Photo Scott Barrow.

#2 WHEN I FALL IN LOVE by Susan Middaugh; directed by Julianne Boyd
Peggy Pharr Wilson as Florence Campbell, Douglas Rees as Ed Ferris

#8 COMPOS MENTIS by Marilyn Millstone; directed by Matthew Penn
Jane Pfitsch as Patricia Ambrose, Peggy Pharr Wilson as Alese Langford, Douglas Rees as Robert Langford

When I Fall In Love by Susan Middaugh and Compos Mentis by Marilyn Millstone both concerned issues of aging and memory loss. In both cases Peggy Pharr Wilson and Douglas Rees play the older couple.

When I Fall In Love was the deeper and more interesting of the plays. In it Wilson and Rees play spouses of dementia patients, who meet in the waiting room outside the memory care unit where their loved ones now reside. The pain of losing a spouse who is still physically present is a heart-breaking situation – they are there and yet the are not. Rees’ Ed Ferris offers Wilson’s Florence Campbell some sensitive advice on how to cope and care for herself while maintaining her devotion to her husband and their life together.

In Compos Mentis Wilson and Rees play a married couple determined not be be approved to live in the “retirement community” to which their children would like to consign them. They play various tricks on Jane Pfitsch, who plays Patricia Ambrose, the MSW in charge of the admissions screening. Where When I Fall in Love offers advice from a place we are all terrified of, Compos Mentis offers gags that we have seen before.

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Peggy Pharr Wilson and Douglas Rees discuss their struggles to accept their spouses’ dementia in When I Fall in Love by Susan Middaugh. Photo Scott Barrow.

#3 POCKETS by Gwendolyn Rice; directed by Julianne Boyd
Jane Pfitsch as Mallory, Matt Neely as Ben

#7 BROKEN WINDOW THEOREM by Suzanne Bradbeer; directed by Matthew Penn
Dina Thomas as Alyssa Samuelson, Matt Neely as Aaron Jarrett

This pair of plays concern highly intelligent but quirky and awkward adults working through their various foibles and coping mechanisms to connect. Both are sweet plays nicely played by Matt Neely, Dina Thomas, and Pfitsch.  In Pockets Neely is a college librarian and Pfitsch presents herself as a cultural anthropology professor who conducts her research but surreptitiously searching through the coat pockets and purses of her colleagues. With Neely’s assistance, she finds what she’s looking for while some interesting plot twists tell us more about their characters.

In Broken Window Theorem Neely and Thomas play Ph.D. candidates in math. She is completely inept with human interaction, while he is overly confident of his abilities in this area. I found the premise of this play – she lobs a baseball through his window because she is afraid of both him and his “beware of dog” sign – to be shaky, and Neely’s character quite unappealing. Neither the playwright nor the director seemed to build much chemistry between the two, until the very, very end.

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Jane Pfitsch can’t wait to see what Matt Neely’s got in his coat pockets in Pockets by Gwendolyn Rice. Photo Scott Barrow.

 

#4 THE DIRTY IRISH by Ann Marie Shea; directed by Matthew Penn
Peggy Pharr Wilson as Grace Windsor, Douglas Rees as Howard Windsor, Dina Thomas as Bridget, Lucky Gretzinger as Joe

#9 RAGHEAD by Tom Coash; directed by Matthew Penn
Dina Thomas as Sarah, Lucky Gretzinger as Nick

This pair of plays deal with racial and religious profiling and prejudice. In The Dirty Irish Wilson and Rees play Boston Brahmin couple Set shortly after the Italian- American Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death for their role in the 1920 armed robbery at the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company, The Dirty Irish allows us to eavesdrop on Wilson and Rees as the Boston Brahmin couple gossip about the immigrants of all varieties who threaten their “American” way of life. While they openly flout Prohibition, they whitter on about the lawlessness and drinking habits of the Irish and the Italians, within hearing of their newest “Irish Girl.” Her name is Maggie but in an over-worked gag they find it simpler to call all their Irish maidservants Bridget.

I was unclear what the point of having Maggie and her friend, Joe, the Irish lad who delivers the bootleg hooch, in the play was. The dialogue between Wilson and Rees drives home the point that this kind of scapegoating of immigrants has been with us always, whatever the color of their skin or their religion – the Irish and Italians are sneered at as Papists by the staunchly Protestant New Englanders.

Raghead is easily the best written play of the lot. In it Thomas plays Sarah, a garrulous and witty aspiring actress who has arranged a blind date with a friend’s brother, a New York City firefighter named Nick, played by Lucky Gretzinger. They have been communicating successfully online, and Nick’s sister has been selling them on the idea that they might have a future together as a couple. Sarah arrives wearing a hijab. Is she Muslim? How will Nick, who lost comrades on 9/11, cope with being seen in public with a veiled woman? How does Sarah cope with the hatred and ridicule heaped on her in public simply because she is wearing a headscarf? There is real tension between the characters, and important issues are raised.

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Dina Thomas surprises Lucky Gretzinger when she appears for their blind date wearing the hijab in Raghead by Tom Coash. Photo Scott Barrow.

 

#5 DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER PIGEON by Allie Costa; directed by Julianne Boyd
Jane Pfitsch as Brooke, Lucky Gretzinger as The Messenger

#6 I DON’T KNOW by James McLindon; directed by Matthew Penn
Douglas Rees as Sergeant, Lucky Gretzinger as Private 1, Dina Thomas as Private 2, Jane Pfitsch as Private 3, Matt Neely as Private 4

These two plays are the least alike, although both address questions of gender roles and expectations. I Don’t Know is explosively funny as a quartet of privates  school their old-school sergeant in the new gender-fluid, non-binary permutations of political correctness in “this person’s army.” The set up for this is the well-known marching candence that begins “I don’t know but I’ve been told…” Bawdy rhymes abound as the male and female soldiers invent new riffs on the old rhyme to make it more inclusive. I Don’t Know makes for a rousing curtain-raiser after intermission.

In Don’t Shoot the Messenger Pigeon Pfitsch and Gretzinger play a pair of assassins who play an intriguing game of one-upmanship with many neat and amusing twists of plot and expectations along the way.

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Four privates (Matt Neely, Dina Thomas Jane Pfitsch, and Lucky Gretzinger) teach their no-nonsense Sergean (Douglas Rees) in non-biary gender etiquette in I Don’t Know by James McLindon. Photo Scott Barrow.

(Want another opinion? Check out J. Peter Bergman’s review at Berkshire Bright Focus.)

The 6th Annual 10X10 New Play Festival was presented February 16-March 5, 2017, by Barrington Stage Company on their St. Germain Stage in the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, MA  February 16-March 5, 2017. Producer: Rebecca Weiss. Directors: Julianne Boyd and Matthew Penn. Playwrights: Suzanne Bradbeer, Tom Coash, Allie Costa, James McLindon, Susan Middaugh, Marilyn Millstone, Scott Mullen, Gwendolyn Rice, Ann Marie Shea, and Annette StorckmanCast: Lucky Gretzinger, Matt Neely, Jane Pfitsch, Douglas Rees, Dina Thomas, and Peggy Pharr Wilson. Lighting design by Jeff Davis, costume coordination by Kelsey VonderHaar and sound design by Alexander Sovronsky. Production Stage Manager: Fran Rubenstein.

Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm, with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $28 Thursday evening and Saturday/Sunday matinees, $32 Friday and Saturday evenings.  Low-priced preview tickets are $20 on February 16 and 17 at 7:30pm. Reserved seating. For more information, call the Barrington Stage Box Office at 413-236-8888 or visit www.barringtonstageco.org.

About 10X10 Upstreet Arts Festival

The festival is a collaborative effort spearheaded by Barrington Stage Company and the City of Pittsfield, and coordinated through a steering committee that includes the Beacon Cinema, Berkshire International Film Festival (BIFF), Berkshire Museum, Lichtenstein Center for the Arts and the City of Pittsfield.

For more information, visit discoverpittsfield.com/10X10, find 10X10 Upstreet on Facebook, or contact the City of Pittsfield’s Office of Cultural Development at 413-499-9348.

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