Pinch ‘N’ Ouch Theatre’s “The Issues Plays,” running this weekend through tonight, brings six short plays dealing with contemporary issues to the stage. Most are about 10 minutes long, so the whole production clocks in at about an hour. These drama-filled, intense, hard-hitting works give the actors plenty to sink their teeth into, but the swiftly moving collection of vignettes never really lets the audience settle into one space long enough to contemplate or understand the multi-faceted issues presented.
Even placing these works under the umbrella of “issues” is perhaps problematic. They seem interesting in their use of language, their glimpses into small private moments, their flashes of cruelty and compassion. But “issues” — used here to describe broad contemporary social problems such as alcoholism, homophobia and homelessness — are all lumped together, and that somehow emphasizes their broadness. It makes us step away a bit from the human scale that is the strength of these plays.
Pinch ‘N’ Ouch has sought out some resilient and small-but-mighty works by some of America’s most prominent contemporary playwrights. The strongest of them is undoubtedly Pulitzer Prize nominee and “Mauritius” author Theresa Rebeck’s short “Sex With the Censor.” Here, Jackie Costello and Stephen Banks play a prostitute and a john arriving in a hotel room, negotiating the terms of their exchange. It turns out that the customer has an unusual taste for language, not sex. The actors bring out the humor and tension, even the sublimated violence, of the situation. The interplay of dichotomies — youth and age, power and weakness, male and female, money and need — drives the work and makes for a powerful and surprisingly intricate short drama.
Geoffrey Nauffts’ “Baby Steps,” about a single gay man (Doyle Reynolds) being turned away by an adoption agency, most easily fits into the “issues” category. Reynolds and actress Stacy Melich, as the slightly beleaguered adoption agent, do an excellent job in naturalistic, nicely shaded, subdued portraits of the characters. As with Nauffts’ Broadway hit “Next Fall” (produced at Actors’ Express last season), the work takes on serious subject matter with a lot of humor and intelligence. But it’s too earnest and direct, falling into some familiar conceptual ruts and attempting to wring out easy sympathies.
It’s a problem that also seems to affect the other plays. Ethan Coen’s “Struggle Session” sets up some dramatic opposites (homeless man and fired wealthy executive). But it never really lets us see beyond that or delve deeper past what we already know or presume about the two types, even after one of them undergoes a complete transformation.
Barrett Doyle and Heather Rule are charming as brother and sister facing a crisis due to alcoholism in Donald Margulies’ “Misadventure.” We see an intense moment, but we’re never drawn close enough for any insight into the problem. The actors do manage to slowly and beautifully limn the huge, often painful, love the two characters have for each other. “Beauty Runs on Light Feet” is equally intense, and the actors do an especially fine job at showing how a couple fight and unexpectedly reach a place of relative understanding where the defenses are let down, and then just as quickly the defenses are back up again.
Though the individual works are strong and the actors dive right in, “The Issues Plays” never quite coheres as a complete evening. It feels a bit like off-season training for Atlanta actors: small but difficult challenges have been assigned to them to get the home team in shape before the real work begins. But if the results of this off-season training are any indication, it will be a great season ahead.