An old bit of theater wisdom holds that the second production of a play is much, much more difficult to get than the first. There are many festivals and venues for the "new" and the "world premiere," but a work has to have substance -- not just promise -- to earn subsequent showings.
So expectations are high when the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co. presents "the best" works from the five years of its annual Theatre Festival in Black & White, comprising collaborations between black and white artists on issues that aren't so black and white. Rough edges on several of the one-acts remain, but these seven are still worthwhile. (An eighth play, Mark Clayton Southers' "The Exile of King Harold," was pulled for "unforeseen circumstances.")
The plays run in rotation in two sets, Program A and B. The former starts with the strongest production in the lineup, Wali Jamal's "The Holding Cell," about one night at the lockup and the mystery still bedeviling some of its temporary inmates. Directed by Marci Woodruff, "Cell" boasts a strong cast led by Leslie "Ezra" Green as Kurtis, a man weighed down by anger, opposite the versatile Lonzo Green (who appears in two other one-acts) as a homeless man and the personification of Kurtis' personal demon. Plus there's solid comic relief from Todd Betker as a rather clueless white yinzer and David Conley as an unlucky birthday celebrant.
From column B are two noteworthy ensemble pieces. I still can't figure out what the abbreviation F.O.R.D. is intended to mean, but David Turkel's oddly titled play is mostly a comedy with some remarkable insights on religion, and a questionably mocking portrayal of Pentecostalism. Kim El directs a solid cast of David Flick as a white-trash loser looking for fortune and a future for his soul; Jennifer Chervenick as his sharp-tongued girlfriend; and the multi-talented Jamal (he's also a director in the festival) as the much-put-upon Bible-reading buddy with a tornado of a wife, the marvelously scenery-chewing Jacqueline Flowers.
On the more serious side, "A Question of Taste" layers irony upon agony with a theme as old as the French Revolution and as modern as the latest African nation in turmoil, the anonymous setting of Andrew Ade's finely mannered thriller. It's not fair to reveal too much of the story about two political prisoners, the trajectory of a revolution, and the evolution of a dictatorial despot. Kudos to director Ron Black and to Benjamin Blakey and KL Brewer as the prisoners, with Lonzo Green as the prison guard.
None of this is meant to belittle the remaining four one-acts, all of them two-person dramas. Completing program B are Vanessa German's "Pieces," a largely plotless character study of a chance but ultimately meaningful encounter between two women (German and Tressa Glover), black and white, straight and gay, directed by Corey Rieger; and Javon Jones' enigmatic "Bones," a disturbing encounter between a bereft father (Green again) and a strange youth (Don DiGiulio), directed by Mark Whitehead.
And taking the "A" train are Bob Gorczyca's "The Other Side," about the spoiled dream of a washed-up prize-fighter (Nathan Hollabaugh) who won't listen to the good sense of his bartender buddy (Mark Thompson), directed by Southers; and Amy Hartman's "Half of Zero," about the travails of two unlikely twins (Courtney Day Nassar and Laura M. Hoffman), directed by Jamal.
The Best of the Theatre Festival in Black & White continues with two alternating programs through Thu., Oct. 30. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co. 542 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-288-0358 or www.pghplaywrights.com. Tickets: 412 394-3353 or www.proartstickets.org