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Confronted With Issues 

Seven shorts by David Auburn combine into a festive three hours at Beowulf Alley

As did John Patrick Shanley in 2005 (see the review of Doubt elsewhere in this issue), David Auburn won the double-whammy of a Tony and a Pulitzer in a single year--2001, for his mad-mathematician play Proof.

Before Auburn so impressed the establishment with that conventionally structured full-length work, he made his name with a clutch of cockeyed and engaging little one-act comedies which may be found in Beowulf Alley's new production, Fifth Planet and Other Plays.

In these seven short works, Auburn tends to reveal, bit by bit, not what happens next, but what, exactly, happened before. It's an important difference that allows for greater shading of character (we must rely on the characters to interpret and color their stories rather than just act them out) than would otherwise be possible in a piece lasting as little as five minutes.

A particularly suave example of this opens the evening and lends the production its title. Fifth Planet falls into 44 short scenes, the first of which are blackouts lasting just a few seconds and involving little or no dialogue. At first, it looks like it's going to be something quirky and quasi-inscrutable in the manner of David Ives, but eventually, Auburn falls into a more conventional, if compact, storytelling mode, with the two characters ultimately engaging in normal, full-fledged conversations. Mike, we come to understand, is a janitor at an observatory who sets up his own little telescope on a nearby hill, hoping to find something new in the heavens while his wife watches the same old movie on TV ad infinitum. He develops a passing acquaintance with an arrogant astronomer named Veronica.

The primary events take place offstage and are only grudgingly recounted to us through the two characters' conversations. Of course, it's what happens between Mike and Veronica that's of central importance, and the play, named after Jupiter--which Mike keeps his eye on--might better be titled Binary System, for two stars that orbit each other without colliding. Stephen Cruz, as Mike, makes a fine impression even without opening his mouth (he'll be replaced in some performances by Taylor Genovese). Johanna Hudson isn't quite as successful as Veronica; her performance is a bit too childlike, as if she were a little girl pretending to be a smug astronomer.

Miss You is a very compact telephone play about love and unfaithfulness; Samantha Cormier and Alan Crombie do a good job of delineating two characters each, switching in the time it takes a phone to ring. Damage Control is Auburn's most conventional item here, with a hapless consultant (Steve McKee) trying to prepare his political-executive boss (Roger Owen) for a speech regarding a scandal the politician has gotten himself into. This is the jokiest and most skitlike piece on display and gets the best audience response, even though--through no fault of the actors--the characters are the least nuanced of the evening.

Three Monologues is the most difficult playlet to parse; it's a slice of a woman's lonely life, narrated sensitively by Chris Farishon. Next, Auburn treats his characters a bit viciously in Are You Ready? Here, a man (the deft Jonathan Northover on opening night, Josh Galyen thereafter) tells us one awful thing about himself after another, never quite realizing how lousy his entire life is. There's a final twist of the knife involving two people who are strangers to him and each other (played by Victoria McGee and the amusingly bitchy Edgar Burton).

What Do You Believe About the Future? involves 10 actors, each given only a number, talking about ... well, look at the title. It's amusing, but doesn't really develop into anything. In contrast, We Had a Very Good Time is quite well fleshed out. It concerns a young married couple (the very appealing Danielle Shirar and Jeremy Womac) on their last day of vacation in an unnamed foreign country. She wants to follow the guidebook to the bitter end; he's had enough and would just like to chill out at a movie. They part company for the afternoon; she hooks up with a very odd tour guide (also played by Womac), and he has an awkward encounter on the street with a native woman (Shirar again). Despite the silly details, anyone who has done any independent foreign travel will recognize the truths in this piece, truths about how we fall into certain patterns of communication, and how our ongoing relationships can be altered by even brief encounters with strangers.

This all adds up to nearly three hours in the theater, including intermission, but the variety of Auburn's subjects, his deft dialogue, the engaging cast and the right-to-the-point direction of Nell Summers make the time pass quickly. It's a fine, funny way to be confronted with issues of trust, self-reliance, betrayal and the caprices of fate.

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