08/04/2013 09:01 pm ET Updated Oct 04, 2013

First Nighter: Tina Howe, Alan Zweibel Take 59E59 Theatre's "Summer Shorts" One-Act Cake

The old saw about saving the best for last is honored during Summer Shorts 2013 at 59E59. The Series A post-intermission, entry is Tina Howe's goofy "Breaking the Spell" about a princess who isn't Sleeping Beauty but who's nevertheless been sleeping for 100 years. The Series B post-intermission entry is Alan Zweibel's touching "Pine Cone Moment" about two widowed seniors who share new-found love through their computers.
The loopy Howe piece, totally unexpected in light of her delicately intense previous work, has the King (Michael Countryman) of an unspecified fairy tale land concerned that if he finds no one is his kingdom (or elsewhere) to awaken sleeping non-beauty daughter Christabel (Crystal Finn) by the end of the final week, a witch's curse will go into effect and the realm's entire population will die.
With the help of his Poor Wretched Fool (Evan Shinners), also known as PWF, he's watched thousands of would-be saviors troop through his snoozing daughter's chamber--among them, 17,000 kissing princes. As time runs out, two last-ditch hopefuls--a jazz saxophonist (Jesse Scheinin) and an accordionist (Shinners)--arrive and look as if they have the answer.
Do they? Attend out find out. The real incentive is Howe's bright silliness, as she spins on the Sleeping Beauty evergreen with little more in mind than to entertain. It's directed for maximize fun by Birgitta Victorson and played with tipsy élan.
Zweibel's playlet has something wiser and more substantial going on that's directly aimed at older theater goers. It's a love story for the older crowd, perhaps in recognition that they're the ones filling theaters these recent decades. Still, its message is something on which younger ticket buyers can certainly eavesdrop to their benefit.
Harry (Brian Reddy) and Emma (Caroline Lagerfelt) have found each other romantically after being good friends when their respective spouses, amusingly vulgar Bunny (Camille Saviola) and golfer Brian (James Murtaugh), lived and breathed. Typing at each other in the wee hours before they're due to have a getaway weekend together, Harry and Emma are visited by the memories of their deceased partners.
In the process, Emma asks Brian when his pine-cone moment occurred, referring to her phrase for the instant a person realizes he's fallen in love. He tells her his, but when he asks for hers, she isn't forthcoming. That's where well-known comedy writer Zweibel hangs his suspense. It's not only an insightful development but, as it reaches a denouement, is moving and exhilarating.
No more will be revealed here, except the information that not only is there a sensitive director (Fred Berner) but a choreographer (Deanna Dys) who put the cast through their paces with empathy as well as joy. Perhaps it's not giving away too much to point out that dancing goes on in both the Howe and Zweibel one-acts, making the joint observation that often life, no matter how complicated it gets, serves up much to dance about.
Dancing also becomes a crucial element of Series B opener "Falling Short" by Marian Fontana, a pleasantly humorous interlude in which another kind of computer dating is on tap. Before anyone asks how many computer-dating sketches ticket buyers will endure before the conceit completely runs out of gas, it should be noted that Fontana deals with it nicely.
Agricultural journalist Lee (Kendra Mylnechuk) agrees to a meet-and-greet striving actor Nate (J. J. Kandel). As a result of 9/11, Lee is another of the evening's widows (see above) and is timid about anything new, while Nate--making his living as a white knight at a New Jersey Renaissance Fair--isn't the slickest swain going. Fontana's accomplishment--with director Alexander Dinaris bringing out her strengths--is how she makes the awkward couple warm up to each other so appealingly.
For the Series A kick-off, Neil LaBute, who must be writing a play a day, does what could be a spin on his Reasons to Be Pretty. It's titled "Good Luck (in Farsi)," but could just as easily be tagged "Reasons Not to Be Pretty."
Two drop-dead-stunning actresses, Kate (gorgeouas Gia Crovatin) and Paige (beautiful Elizabeth Masucci) show up to audition for the same part in an impending television series. Despite the competition in which they find themselves--and have found themselves before--they swap tips and experiences. But how much BFF potential there is for them is something LaBute, who also directs, keeps up in the air. Plus, it's something into which Crovatin, who's reminiscent of the young Kay Kendall, and Masucci inject their performing helium. The ambiguous exchange--interrupted occasionally by an office facilitator (Molly Logan Chase)--doesn't ultimately amount to much, but it's plenty of fun while passing.
There's some amusement lodged in Lucas Hnath's Series A second item, "About a Woman Named Sarah." The Sarah in question is Sarah Palin (Marisa Viola), and the three people chatting with her on the weekend she's vetted for the 2008 Republican ticket are nominee John McCain (Mark Elliot Wilson), his spouse Cindy (Stephanie Cannon) and Palin's first dude Todd (Ben Vigus).
The item consists of several one-on-one conversations laden with choppy dialogue frequently broken up by an off-stage clicking sound. Hnath--who wrote the recent off-Broadway skit about a different famous figure, "A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney"--clearly likes to speculate on what might have transpired between and among celebrities. Here, he may be on to something approaching the truth and especially sounds as if he's gotten Cindy's objections to Sarah on the nose.
But since patrons understand he's just imagining the possibilities, the likelihood that he isn't quite getting it right nags at audience appreciation. With Eric Hoff directing the stylized presentation, the actors are fine. Their major achievement, however, may be memorizing so many volleyed sentence fragments.
The Summer Shorts head-scratcher is Paul Weitz's Series B "Change," wherein drug recidivist Jordan (Michael D. Dempsey) visits old married friends Ted (Alex Manette) and Carla (Allison Daugherty). In the course of their reunion, he turns them on to his--and evidently their--old ways. Weitz conjures memories of Noel Coward's Design for Living and Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim. But, given prevalent contemporary mores, his contemporary update goes off-puttingly awry. It's irredeemably vulgar.