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Pittsburgh New Works Festival

The festival features one-acts exploring death, dying, superheroes and insomnia

Bruce Cocker and Shay Port in "Close Your Eyes," by James Harmon Brown, produced by CCAC South for the Pittsburgh New Works Festival
Photo courtesy of Matthew Critchfield
Bruce Cocker and Shay Port in "Close Your Eyes," by James Harmon Brown, produced by CCAC South for the Pittsburgh New Works Festival

The Pittsburgh New Works Festival presents a series of evening-length programs of three world-premiere one-acts each, produced by local troupes. Following are reviews of the concluding pair of programs, C and D.

Program C. Opening play "The Other Half," by Garry Michael Kluger, is ostensibly about three friends deciding which outfit to dress a recently deceased friend in for her viewing. In actuality, it's about the difficulty of being in a private lesbian relationship, and how that difficulty has changed (or hasn't) over time. The Thoreau NM production, directed by Lance-Eric Skapura, takes a bit too long to get where it's going, and once it gets there, it's little more than a monologue with interruptions. But it's a well-crafted, occasionally powerful monologue. Louise Fox is a scene-stealer as Phyllis. It's a shame her tertiary character serves mainly to spur on the monologist's speech, because every line Fox delivers is received like good physical comedy: with surprise and delight.

At first, "The Academy of Superheroes," by Tom Cavanaugh, is about precisely what it sounds like. A group of superheroes hone their powers — and interpersonal relationships — within the walls of the theater. The Actors Civic Theater production, directed by James Critchfield, is children's theater for adults, and like any conventional superhero tale, it aims to crowd-please more than engage intellectually. This has the potential to backfire (it mostly does). Fourteen-year-old Sundiata Rice nearly saves the day as the Doctor. "Some of you might be wondering how someone so young got this position," Rice says. "It's because I have the highest IQ." If acting were a measure of intelligence, he just might be right. A twist at play's end is a too-late attempt at meaningfulness.

There's an unwritten rule in playwriting: Don't make death too central to your story. Some adhere to this as an axiom. But CCAC South Campus's production of "Close Your Eyes," by James Harmon Brown, defies this injunction until it all but disappears. Directed by Lora Oxenreiter, the play initially deals with death in a familiar fashion: by normalizing the dialogue about it. Miranda (Shay Port), the dying, and Jake (Bruce Crocker), her long-lost ex-husband, skirt the gravity of the topic with familiar ease. They treat "cancer as a nuisance and death as a punchline," as Jake says, for as long as they can manage. But soon the gravity creeps in, and mortality is addressed head-on, including a preemptive eulogy.

Program D. Like Program C, Program D opens with a show about a three comrades mourning the death of a friend. The similarities don't end there: Both "The Other Half" and Program D's "Scattered," directed by Naomi Grodin for Baldwin Players, comment on queerness, and both manifest the dead onstage. But here, F.J. Hartland's characters exist in a tolerant world. It's an accepting liberal wilderness where the grieving happens to be gay, but they're not mourning the tragic close of a closeted life. Joel Ambrose moves comfortably through a range of emotions as Logan. And Carrie Lee Martz dons the charming intonation of a Southern belle as June. She isn't a debutante, but instead an endearingly unaffected "fag hag" (as another character calls her) who speaks for the deceased when his absence becomes palpable.

Hamilton Kreeger's "Sleeping Aide" benefits from its simplistic setup: Man and woman chat in bed in the middle of the night. In this case the man is Ted (Mark Yochum), a sleepless widower, and the woman is Emma (Ruthy Stapleton), an escort 40 years Ted's junior. Joe Eberle's direction, for Stage Right, turns Ted into a whiny one, a sex-shunning insomniac who wants nothing but a shut-eyed vixen at his side. It's a male fantasy story, and not in a mocking way. But Stapleton has a naturalistic listlessness as Emma, and she manages to pull the show along.

As the Program D finale, "The Field" is the festival's closing play. It's also among its most unfortunate inclusions. Set where Field of Dreams was shot, the play, like the film, revolves around the troubled relationship between father and son. There are borrowed lines — "hey dad ... wanna have a catch?" — and a not-so-brief synopsis of the source material. This Theatre Factory production might sound like the stuff of playful postmodernist theater. But under the direction of Scott P. Calhoon, "The Field" is too earnest in its derivativeness to be mistaken for ironic.

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