“Shorts Gone Wild,” a collection of mostly brand-new, LGBT-themed short plays that debuted at Empire Stage in Fort Lauderdale last weekend, is not a masterpiece, but this unique coproduction does structure itself around a conceptual masterstroke: Rather than run through the seven plays in the same order every night, the cast allows the audience to select the plays’ rotations by picking from numbers in a hat.
This means that it’s quite possible for the most show-stopping play to run in the middle of the first act, and for the slowest downer to close the show. It’s a bit like gestalt theater; it’s interactive, it keeps the six actors perpetually on their toes, and it somewhat hamstrings my job. After all, I can’t very well criticize the flow of the overall production if its individual parts were ordered by a jury of my peers.
Since the show you get won’t exactly be the same one I saw, I’ll touch on the plays out of the order I saw them, from strongest to weakest. No matter where it lands in the rotation, it will be hard to top – or forget – Christopher Demos-Brown’s “Mallory Square,” which retains the playwright’s propensity for dialogue that rings true to the ear and emotions that resonate with the heart. Andy Quiroga and Niki Fridh play Andy and Jen, a married couple whose gay best friends, portrayed by Rayner Garranchan and Matt Stabile, ask Jen to become a surrogate mother.
“Mallory Square” is less about sexuality than the travails of parenthood, and the monumentality of the decision to raise a child. Demos-Brown gifts Quiroga with a moving anecdote about a frightening trip to the titular Key West tourist trap, and the actor captures a parent’s worst fears and anxieties in a monologue brimming with surprisingly funny observational details (including one about a certain genitalia-shaped lollipop). The piece is superbly directed by Kim Ehly, who knows when to create a din of overlapping dialogue and when to let silence speak volumes.
Speaking of the sounds of silence, Mark Della Ventura’s “Unexpected” thrives on unspoken tension, milked for every uncomfortable second by John Manzelli’s patient, sensitive direction. The play is set on New Year’s Eve 2013, where a couple of friends – one openly gay, the other closeted – share a moment that brings their true feelings to the forefront. Della Ventura again plumbs his narrative bread-and-butter of unspoken desires and the difficulty of communication, and Garranchan and Stabile are terrific as the confused partygoers – both of them comfortable in their characters’ discomfort.
In fact, “Unexpected” is an appropriate enough title for this entire collection, because nearly every piece pivots on a similar element of surprise, whether administered with quiet poise or loud theatrics. Kim Ehly’s “The Happy Ones” draws frayed, wrenching comedy from a disastrous wine tasting-cum-first “date” between two lesbians in Los Angeles’ Los Feliz community. As AJ’s (Gladys R. Benton) neighborly visit to Kelly’s (Fridh) house for some vino and cheese becomes something else entirely, the play evolves into a stellar showcase for Fridh, whose desperate behavior occupies the moment when healthy admiration yields to debilitating obsession.
And in Tony Finstrom’s “Mr. and Mr. Smith,” the unexpected jolt is delivered in a hospital bed, where a straight film star (Garranchan) wakes up from an on-set concussion to find that he unknowingly married his stand-in (Stabile) the night before. Putting aside the fact that Stabile looks nothing like Garranchan, this is still a clever tribute to the screwball comedies of the studio system. Its broad humor – there are jokes about a zany nun and a fast-talking agent whose words are slurred from Novocain – doesn’t feel of a piece with the uncomfortable realism of these other plays, but it contains perhaps the most satisfying ending of this entire production.
Winding down here, Michael Leeds contributed two new works, both of them essentially inside-theater metaplays. In “Read This Play,” Garranchan’s playwright holds Quiroga’s artistic director hostage and until he reads his new play, and in “A Lyrical Fable,” showtune lyrics are repurposed as dialogue in a self-referential homage to old Broadway chestnuts. Theater insiders will appreciate the winking comedy of these pieces, but they have a one-note insularity to them; in their current form, I don’t know if they would have much life outside of this collection.
As for the “final” play, Paul Rudnick’s nationally performed “The Gay Agenda,” the less said about this, the better. In a solo satire, Janet Weakley plays a Christian conservative activist addressing an audience about her family’s gay neighbors – and the hidden insecurities their presence unlocks within her. This wasn’t funny when Irene Adjan performed it at “Summer Shorts” this year, and it’s less funny here, even with Weakley seeming to channel Sarah Palin in costume, voice and mannerisms. Her gusto mildly helps make up for some small mistakes, but the biggest mistake here is the work itself.
The plays have no individual sets, but I can’t say I missed them – David Hart’s sound design adds just enough aural details to let our imaginations fill in the rest. Peter Lovello’s costumes and Michael McLain’s scenic designs cleverly color-code each play to a different rainbow hue, from the actors’ ensembles to the color of the props – a sometimes subtle touch that goes a long way in unifying these disparate works. More thoughtful than wild, this compilation’s hard work outweighs its flaws, and it’s a welcome addition to this long, slow summer in South Florida theatre.
"Shorts Gone Wild," a coproduction of Island City Stage and City Theatre, runs through Sept. 1 at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Drive, Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $30. Call 954/519-2533 or visit islandcitystage.org.