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Geva Playwrights Fest gets the plot 

Geva Theatre's Regional Playwrights Festival offers a reminder that Rochester is home to some truly creative talent. It's a chance to get inspired by the work going on in your back yard, and get a preview of plays that could soon end up on the stage. The 2006 fest took place May 6, with a full reading of Rahn S. D'Agostino'sThe Okapi, and May 8, with an evening of one-act plays.

I attended the May 8 show and found that two of the selections were practically ready for the boards. Peter Tonery'sUndone tells a seduction story, of sorts, as a military recruiter tries to convince a seemingly unsure young man that Army life is for him. The believable dialogue really makes the play, as practically every word out of Lieutenant Barry Giles' exposes him as a shyster more than a soldier, someone who knows precisely which buttons to push to make a sale. Even as we're repulsed by the base manipulations, it's impossible to deny the beauty of well-honed craft.

On the more light-hearted side, I fell in love a little bit with Johanna Mary Lester and her One of These Days. In what could be subtitled "How Barry Manilow Ruined What Could Have Been My Great Romance," a man and a woman take turns explaining to a psychiatrist (in different appointments) why their "relationship" doesn't work. The staging of the piece --- with the psychiatrist sitting between them, representing the divide in time but still responding to one of the participants or the other --- is perhaps too clever. I lost track of who was trying to make which point (although that could have been intentional). But that's nitpicking: Lester's script is full of so many gold-coin lines that she's a millionaire with words. The comparing of frustrating loved ones to dust under your fingernails; the story of inadvertently breaking up with someone via greeting card: Lester nails the crippling narcissism of America's 20- and 30 somethings, and makes us laugh even as she reveals how utterly broken we are.

Also promising were I Like Art by Joseph Sorrentino (who occasionally writes for City) and Pea Soup by Nancy Preston Stark. Art has a charming conceit, as two people --- one a self-important artiste, the other a blue-collar mooch --- chat about art at a gallery opening. The play hits its stride when the two launch into a gag inspired by Abbott and Costello's classic "Who's On First" routine, in which confusion over Japanese Noh theater and just plain no theater leads to some hearty laughs. Unfortunately, the gag doesn't really progress beyond that, and ends up circling the same territory over and over again.

Stark's Pea Soup tackles a teenage girl's struggle with identity as she approaches her male teacher with the question of nature vs. nurture, and then drops a bombshell. Things unravel quickly from there, leaving the teacher in what one audience member called "a man's worst nightmare." Stark has a lock on the teen psyche, and it's a fairly frightful place to behold. The teacher's role in the play is a bit more problematic: he switches from seemingly aloof to over-invested in a heartbeat. Still, the ambiguous resolution struck a nerve with many in the crowd, and the piece has a lot of promise.

The last play of the night, Mark Witteveen'sThe American Bar, is the one that needs the most work. I'm hopeful that Witteveen will take some of the audience's comments from the question-and-answer session into consideration, especially regarding the big narrative twist that the entire play hinges on. As it stands, it's confusing at best.

If there's one bit of advice I'd offer all the playwrights, it would be to be their own harshest editors. Every one of the scripts could be tightened up in parts, which would make some already impressive plays even more worthy of praise.


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