Review: At This Theater Festival, Death Crouches in the Wings

In the shadows outside the house, the two men watch and wait. Through the windows, a snug domestic scene unfolds: a mother, a father and three young children enjoying an ordinary evening. The instant the men deliver their news, that peace will be shattered forever. Thus they stand in the yard, hesitating.

“They have no idea what is happening to them,” one of the lurking men says.

The Belgian Symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949) isn’t exactly a regular on New York stages, so it’s a surprise to see him pop up at the Summer Shorts festival at 59E59 Theaters, where Nick Payne’s adaptation of Maeterlinck’s 1895 play “Interior” kicks off Program A.

Directed by Rory McGregor, it’s a moody, voyeuristic piece, so descriptive and densely atmospheric (lighting is by Greg MacPherson, sound by Nick T. Moore, projected paintings by Sharon Holiner) that it could be an audio play. But if it were, we wouldn’t get to see the lined and shadowed face of the Old Man (Bill Buell) contort into an exquisite mask of sorrow when he at last delivers his terrible tidings.

Like Mr. Payne’s monologue “A Life,” currently on Broadway on a double bill with Simon Stephens’s “Sea Wall,” “Interior” is about how the death of a loved one permanently alters the people left behind. It is also about possible suicide, an element that runs through the three short plays of Program A — this, too, is unconventional material for a summer festival lineup.

Danielle Trzcinski’s “The Bridge Play” is the bluntest and least convincing on the topic. A despairing man (James P. Rees) stands on the George Washington Bridge, about to jump — “Wow, I can’t believe I am really doing this,” he says — when a rude young stranger (Christopher Dylan White) interrupts him.

Directed by Sarah Cronk, it’s meant to be a dark comedy, but it doesn’t take the darkness of the situation seriously enough to mine it successfully for laughter. As the play skates toward a sappy ending, the tone is strained, and so is the trajectory, forcing a resolution that’s far too tidy.

“Here I Lie,” a strange and strangely charming two-hander by Courtney Baron (“When It’s You”), ends the program on a fizzy high — which seems like it ought not to be possible in a play whose twin strands concern Maris (Libe Barer), a young editor faking a fatal illness, and Joseph (Robbie Tann), a nurse whose own arcane symptoms are not what they appear. But such is the magic of Maria Mileaf’s impeccable production that warmth and pleasure find an amiable coexistence with determined self-destruction.

For Joseph, as for Maris, creating a life is a matter of authorship — of willing the fantastical into being. The story he chooses to tell about himself is that he’s sick; he longs for the love that he sees lavished on the ill.

So does Maris, whose committed role-play has only one possible end unless she decides to come clean. That, of course, would be mortifying. Besides, in her convoluted mind, she believes that her deception is a kindness to the people in her life.

“You may think that makes me a horrible person, but they want to feel for me,” she says. “It gives them something. It really does.”

Summer Shorts 2019: Series A
Through Aug. 25 at 59E59 Theaters, Manhattan; 646-892-7999, Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

Summer Shorts 2019: Program A

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