‘2016 Summer One-Act Bonanza’ at Old Academy Players in Philadelphia

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If there’s one thing the Old Academy Players are known for, it’s traditions. The venerable troupe was founded in 1923, and has been performing for most of its existence in a building completed in 1819. And in 2009, they started a new tradition: an annual evening of one act plays. This year’s lineup contains six plays, three of them world premieres written by members of the troupe. On the whole, they make for an entertaining evening.

Meredith Mitchell, Dorée Watkins, and Harrison Stengle. Photo courtesy of Old Academy Players.
Meredith Mitchell, Dorée Watkins, and Harrison Stengle. Photo courtesy of Old Academy Players.

The program kicks off with Julianne Homokay’s The Wedding Story. It opens with a man reading bedtime stories to some (unseen) children; when he launches into a story about the marriage between a man and a woman, the couple magically appears and acts out the story for him. But they object to the simplified, unrealistic version of marriage he’s spinning, and pretty soon they’re rebelling against the narrator like the characters in Into the Woods did. “Will you just play along?” the narrator protests, adding “The children will have ample opportunity later to be disillusioned.”

The Wedding Story is a light piece that stays funny to the end, and director Nicole Miller Marks and her three-member cast have some fun skewering racial and gender stereotypes.

The second play of the evening is the oddest: He Said and She Said, a 1918 work by pioneering feminist playwright Alice Gerstenberg. It’s about an upstanding young couple whose marriage is put to the test when a gossiping busybody decides, just for the hell of it, to destroy the marriage through rumor and innuendo. Gerstenberg’s stiff dialogue, cardboard characters and simplistic motivations haven’t aged well, and the play got laughter that the playwright probably hadn’t counted on.

Yet oddly, that’s why director Dale Mezzacappa’s production works – the cast plays it straight, turning the play into a parody of primitive melodrama. Jane Jennings scores a lot of laughs as the campy, eye-rolling villainess.

Writing Day, a world premiere by Lisa Lutwyche, takes us into the home of a woman who has taken a day off from work to finally begin writing that novel she’s been planning for years. Alas, her day is filled with distractions – from little ones, like the sound of a boiling kettle, to big ones, like a mailman (the frenzied Clint Cleaver) who has a nervous breakdown trying to deliver a package.

Eric Rupp and Katie Delach. Photo courtesy of Old Academy Players.
Eric Rupp and Katie Delach. Photo courtesy of Old Academy Players.

The play has a durable comic premise, as we watch our heroine get more and more infuriated over every indignity. And while you’ll see some of the jokes coming a mile away (like the big slapstick climax), Writing Day ended up being the best play of the evening. Chelsea Rose Thompson is endearingly exasperated as the heroine, and Lutwyche and director Sarah Labov build the comedy quite well. This is the one story of the evening that might work as a full-length play.

Nick Zagone’s I Can’t Think of It Right Now concerns a married couple exhausted after yet another day of rushing off to work and “picking up Timmy from pre-school.” When their conversation turns to movies, they try to remember a movie title – but they’re so tired that they can’t remember it. Within a few minutes, all of those Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, and Bruce Willis movies are melting into one in their warped minds. It’s a brief but clever skit, performed drolly by Eric Rupp and Katie Delach. Jillian Bosmann directs.

Another world premiere, Mimi and Ray’s 26th of December Absolutely Not Christmas Party, was written and directed by Courtney Bambrick. Young professional Geri is a guest yet again at a party her friend Mimi (Dorée Watkens) holds every year to pair up her single friends. After dealing with a parade of losers, Geri seeks refuge in an unusual place – where she runs into a guy with a similar streak of bad luck.

Bambrick’s play doesn’t have too many surprises, but it’s cute, and its characters’ list of dating gripes is easy to relate to. And leading players Meredith Mitchell and Harrison Stengle make an adorable couple.

Clint Cleaver and Chelsea Rose Thompson. Photo courtesy of Old Academy Players.
Clint Cleaver and Chelsea Rose Thompson. Photo courtesy of Old Academy Players.

The final world premiere is Laura Lee Lenhoff’s The Love Boat’s Life Boat. Four middle aged women, passengers on a “Desperate Hearts Cruise,” are now drifting on a lifeboat after the ship has sunk. But even though they’re not sure if they will survive, they’re not done complaining about their love lives.

Lenhoff’s play is so short that it never has time to develop distinct personalities for the four women; they spend so much time lashing out against each other that they never bond as a team. And director Laura Salinas’ cramped staging, free of nautical sound effects, feels more slapdash and undisciplined than the rest of the plays. But after all the plays about love and marriage, it’s nice to see something completely ridiculous.

As we watch the women sail away, The Love Boat’s Life Boat ends the evening on a welcome note of absurdity – and, like all the other mini-plays here, with a lot of laughs.

Running Time: two hours, including an intermission.

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2016 Summer One-Act Bonanza plays through July 17, 2016 at Old Academy Players – 3544 Indian Queen Lane, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 843-1109.

List of One-Act Plays:

The Wedding Story

Written by Julianne Homokay, Directed by Nicole Miller Marks

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I Can’t Think of It Right Now

Written by Nick Zagone, Directed by Jillian Bosmann

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He Said and She Said

Written by Alice Gerstenberg, Directed by Dale Mezzacappa

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Mimi and Ray’s 26th of December Absolutely Not Christmas Party

Written and Directed by Courtney Bambrick

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Writing Day

Written by Lisa Lutwyche, Directed by Sarah LaBov

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The Love Boat’s Life Boat

Written by Laura Lee Lenhoff, Directed by Laura Salinas