This year’s Actors’ Equity Showcase spends too much time in hell 

Here's the speech I keep hearing lately as I wait for sweet, tiny shows to start. A director or producer or cavalier local personality comes out and says, "Thanks for coming to see [Sweet, Tiny Show]. Because your support is so important, I just want to make sure that you all got the flier about [Sweet, Tinier Show], opening soon. Come on out and support the arts!"

And then I always sigh and think, Don't guilt us into attending shows. Instead of "the arts" in general, I support good art in particular, which is why I'm hesitant to recommend this year's Actors' Equity Showcase of short plays. It's clogged with the type of art that good people "support" without enjoying.

It does boast real pleasures: strong local performers, smart local writing, big laughs, daring ideas and Ron Simonian's sharpest work in ages. There's even evidence that Sean Grennan, co-author of American Heartland bottom feeders such as A Dog's Life, actually can write comedy. Still, the showcase grinds on for about three hours, and exactly half of it (three plays out of six) is labored, ill-wrought and a waste of time.

Here are the winners. Frank Higgins's "I Don't Think We're in Kansas Anymore" starts as a wartime hostage drama, with a tremulous reporter (the fine Cynthia Hyer) fearing death or torture at the hands of Ahmad (Nathanael Card, also good). Ahmad, though, surprises her. Long saturated in American culture, he discusses the metaphorical implications of Road Runner cartoons. He proposes that she suffer, then escape, then get a book deal back home. Higgins piles absurdity on absurdity, shaping a tough-minded satire of how the media kink up our imaginations. As a vain movie star imagined by both hostage and captor, Martin English is sleek and wolfish — just as he is later in Grennan's "Thunderman and Knockout Girl."

"Thunderman," a comic tribute to superheroes, goes on for a while but keeps topping itself. English plays a slimy boss who fobs his work off on Todd (John-Michael Zuerlein), a helpless clerk who seeks refuge in comic books. Over his lunch break, Todd reads a comic called Thunderman, which is acted out behind him by Andy Perkins (as Thunderman) and English, again, as the supervillain Dr. Midnight. Grennan smashes the real world into fantasy in surprising, hilarious ways, and director William J. Christie keeps some serious crazy from boiling over into chaos. Laughter swells throughout.

Finally, Simonian's "The Sting of Love" is aggressively nasty. As always, Simonian revels in the ranty, fuck-filled dialogue many male actors love to bark at one another. "Then, boom, she throws up on my cock," Tom Moriarty says, just as the lights come up. He and Scott Cordes (both of whom were born for this kind of talk) are sitting in what we soon discover is a holding cell. They've been busted for soliciting. What follows is every kind of overkill, but it's funny enough — and so bracingly acted — that I was soon howling along, despite some reservations. When Simonian is operating at full power, as he is here, a critic pointing out conceptual weakness is like an ant filibusterng a steamroller.

The rest of the time, I sat glumly unsteamrolled. There's unintended comedy in the way Catherine Browder's "The Cove" contrives to keep its secrets until dramatically appropriate. Poor Peggy Friesen and Andy Garrison duel interminably as two characters who both know what they're talking about but will be damned if they'll let us in on it. Finally, Friesen delivers a bizarre, poetic monologue that could anchor a fine one-act but comes far too late to save this.

The opposite trouble afflicts Rosemarie Woods' pedantic "Heat of the Moment." It's the early 1940s, and two women — one white, the other Japanese-American — do each other's hair and engage in some sort of contest to speak the stiffest expositional dialogue: "The war in Europe has everyone on edge." Or: "I guess as an Army wife, I have to prepare for anything." Or: "You married a man named Sam."

Sure enough, this is Pearl Harbor Day. Soon after learning the news, the white woman (Jeanne Averill, deserving better) calls the Japanese "you people" and then apologizes. Meanwhile, her friend Miko (Andi Meyer) tells a long story about a doll, and Miko's husband, Sam (Vi Tran), complains that his coffee isn't as good as it used to be. Then: blackout!

Finally there's Hyer's "The Docent," in which Hermes (Dan Hillaker, who also deserves better) tour-guides a gaggle of charmless stereotypes through hell. As a depiction of eternal suffering, it's a modest success — in 25 minutes or so, it packs in many lifetimes worth of hurt. A silly hippie giggles that bidets send water "up my bum." An obnoxious Southerner thinks the place smells like a "big fart after a funnel cake." At the end, Hyer lets us know that hell has few artists but more than its share of critics.

Just for that, I'll complain that in Greek myth, the Hades of Hermes, Charon and the River Styx — all of which figure in here — isn't hell at all. Instead, it's an underworld haunted by the shades of every mortal who ever died. It's a place that sucks for everyone. Forget Dante — think of the DMV. Or an arts community that doesn't leave unmounted the plays not yet deserving the honor.

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