If you’re intrigued by In a Nutshell because you read the promo and you like your play-watching sprinkled with meta, this adroitly selected, astutely seasoned (by Director, Producer and “conceiver” Christopher McDonnell) five-course meal of one-acts by modern American playwrights does not—in a nutshell—really break open the tantalizing premise of “A couple attends a one-act festival about relationships and begins to reflect on their own” that it promises. Yet this sparely staged, ambitious production is, on the whole, acted and directed with such insight, skill, and power, the premise of the promo—which implicitly promises a multilayered, break-the-fourth-wall look into relationships, but loses the thread along the way—ultimately loses importance. What remains is a set of sharply etched, 15-minute vignettes whose characters you will recognize—or are, were, or will one day be.
The room is intimate, the set simple: a black platform four or so feet from the front row holds two black chairs and a square black table, a large half-moon white light projected against the smooth white brick wall (crew: Jack Garvey, Graydon Moore).
The first playlet, Sure Thing, is by David Ives, known to DC audiences for his Venus in Fur and his adaptations of classic French plays for the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Bill (McDonnell) approaches Betty (Elizabeth Dannenfelser), who’s reading a book, and attempts to engage her in conversation, the process both frustrated and facilitated by an offstage bell that dings each time either of them says something that would work against their developing a relationship and forces them to reword, reconstruct, or utterly (but subtly) recant. McConnell and Dannenfelser are lightning-quick and pitch-perfect, impeccably portraying the emotional ping-pong match Ives has crafted for them.
Mary Miller’s Ferris Wheel features Amelia Eggerton as the terror-stricken Dorie who’s scared of heights from the git-go, and Patrick Grant as the relaxed and calming John beside her who joins her in gittin’ jittery when the contraption gets stuck, and he gets as agitated as she is. Eggerton and Grant’s characters are hilariously hysterical as they contemplate being stuck up there forever—until they discover that might not be so bad.
Joseph Pintauro’s Two Eclairs is not a puff pastry of a playlet. Mark and Maude (again Grant and Eggerton, masterfully navigating in the space of a few minutes the character- personality metamorphosis) are an ostensibly happily married couple who discover things about each other that, with the inevitability of a domino-row collapse, will change their—and others’; there are always others—lives forever. The verbal thrusts are vicious, and remorseless; the show has a parental advisory for a reason.
The Man Who Couldn’t Dance, by television writer and producer Jason Katims, also explores the miseries of mismatched couples, but finds the possibility of hope there: as Gail and Eric, Eggerton and McConnell are lifelong friends whose respective spouses have gone off together. They disagree and argue as close friends do, until we see that there is more to it. In this playlet, the stage is dominated by a huge rosewood crib. Its occupant, tho represented only by a tightly wrapped blanket, will provide one of the most emotionally potent, gently searing moments in the entire show.
The last piece, The Sermon by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet, is problematic, both conceptually and in performance. As the Preacher, Brian Long (whom we first saw in the role of a man on a cell phone trying to meet up with his wife; the meme continues off and on throughout the show) offers his congregation some unoriginal and unpersuasive observations on life and death. Whether this is intentional on the part of the playwright, I do not know. New York Magazine, in an early (1981) review, called it “mealymouthed moral attitudinizing,” and I would be hard pressed to disagree.
The other pieces were so fine, however, that it did not dim their luster. In a Nutshell—if you’re looking for a place to spend a little more than an hour exercising your heart, mind, and sense of humor—you’ll be glad you cracked this one open.
Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.
RATING: BEST OF THE 2016 CAPITAL FRINGE!