Program A. What are the odds that a festival of new plays wouldn't feature actual plays? Oh sure, there are four "works" in Program A of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.'s seventh annual Theatre Festival in Black & White. But with only one exception, this program comes up short in the play department.
A definition: In its truest form, a play features characters overcoming obstacles to achieve a goal. Ideally, one character's goal is another's obstacle. (In Death of a Salesman, Biff's desire to live an authentic life is the obstacle to Willy's need to exist in illusion.) What each character does to achieve that goal is called present, or onstage, action.
And that's what's missing in three of these four plays: It's just characters coming onstage and telling us what's happening offstage. "The Janitor," an early work by August Wilson (!), is a commencement address around which somebody has added a framing device. It does, however, feature the great Kevin Brown, and it's only seven minutes long.
To even discuss the problems in Jann Kwasneski's "I'll Catch You Later" would be cruel. "The Sunday God Gave Me," by Kim El, also depicts two people in chairs talking about things that happened before the lights came up. Still, if El is short on mechanics, she can certainly write some brilliant, scalding dialogue, delivered with mesmerizing talent and intelligence by a heartbreaking Camille Lowman.
Meanwhile, "A Life's Work," by John Carosella, is also about big things happening offstage, but Carosella uses those events to create some onstage action. And the director, Tracey D. Turner, working with her strong cast of Bell Crean, Donna Winter and Todd Betker, actually brings physicality to the stage (something that was missing the rest of the night). -- Ted Hoover
Program B. Definitely stick around for the second half of the festival's Program B. Though very different in plot and mood, both new one-acts feature well-structured stories with clever dialogue and, oddly, share a critical plot point I won't give away.
The big hit is Wali Jamal's "Doo Rag," a richly but darkly humored whodunit that twists stereotypes as well as its plot. Directed by Vince Ventura, the fast-paced thriller is solidly cast and neatly produced (loved the costumes especially, but also give props to the props, sound and light). The mystery is who killed the mutual love interest (winningly played by Shaun Nicole) of thuggish twins, the hot-headed Roland (the hot Larry Scott) or the softer-hearted Ronald (Johnathan Horne, credibly mixing naiveté and anger). David Conley convincingly portrays the voice of reason, Det. Sacks, but Mayme Williams steals the show as Mama.
Less bombastic, but just as pointed, is Andrew Ade's "Language Barrier," a mannered comedy about two graduate-student teaching assistants whose friendship and academic relationship are turned upside-down and out by an undergrad with a problem. Presented with a very hot-button issue, director Ja'Sonta Roberts Deen doesn't tilt the playing field but respects all sides. She also picked a great cast: Tara Lyn Zynel as the more established grad student and hot-tempered Spanish teacher opposite Justine Patrick as the newcomer and cool-headed French teacher, with Cassidy Adkins as their bone of contention.
Program B's first two plays are more like appetizers to those satisfying main courses. "Enough Rope" is a relationship play by Robert Isenberg (who's a frequent CP contributor), directed by Bill Nunn; and Charmaine Page's feel-good dramedy "The Powder Room" is directed by Melissa Hill Grande. -- Michelle Pilecki
Theatre Festival in Black & White continues with Programs A and B alternating through Oct. 30. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co., 542 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-288-0358 or www.pghplaywrights.com