The 28th annual Pittsburgh New Works Festival (PNWF) once again awes with an admirably ambitious line-up. The festival features four programs (A-D) over a three and a half week span. Each program showcases three new one-act plays, each produced by a different local theatre company and if you’d like to know more, check out our preview article.
Clearly, PNWF is not afraid to start bold. Program A’s first play is produced by McKeesport Little Theater. Gordon Bennett’s The Survivor focuses on a Holocaust denier coming to speak at a university. As an audience member, the idea of denying something as irrefutably true as the Holocaust rings offensive. But wait. Bennett is more clever than we initially give him credit for. The play becomes a metaphor for the Trump administration with its oft-repeated claims of “fake news” in response to facts.
By recasting the Holocaust as “fake news,” Bennett diffuses some of the hot-button controversies of the current administration. He gets us to consider more broadly the damaging implications of spreading falsehoods as truth. At the center of the play is Ph.D. student James Stevens (Darrin Mosley) who’s writing his dissertation on the Holocaust. His girlfriend, Vivian Danielle (Sarah Street), edits the college newspaper. She’s signed him up to publically debate the Holocaust denier without asking his permission.
Under director Edward Bostedo, Mosley feels genuine as he struggles with whether or not to participate in this inane dialogue. To what extent are we culpable if we fail to refute falsehoods around us? And how does one engage in an intellectually relevant battle when the other side is more interested in sensationalism? Bennett skews to the didactic at times, but the questions that arise are highly relevant.
Bostedo’s color-blind casting is genius and nicely surprises without feeling contrived. Unexpectedly for a Jewish studies scholar, Mosley is African-American, giving him another layer of unspoken sensitivity around oppression. However, that sensitivity isn’t limited to him. Stevens’ mother, Mary (Kathleen Regan) is white. She stands behind her son with quiet but fully present indignance, arms akimbo, when the Holocaust denier, William Whitehead (Andy Pivarnik), shows up at their home. As Whitehead, Pivarnik has a misplaced swagger that rises up out of his tan cowboy boots as he enters their home and rasps “Call me Whitey.” One can’t help but cringe.
The second play is Allston James’ AleynaAnna, presented by Cup-A-Jo Productions and directed by Nick Mitchell. It’s by far the shortest of the three plays. In fact, it feels like a scene cut from a larger work. It stopped more than concluded, as evidenced by the audience’s collective hesitancy on whether or not to clap.
AleynaAnna does flow smoothly from The Survivor in terms of continuing the theme of discrimination. The play opens with Aleyna (Elena Falgione), a young Muslim woman wearing a hijab, studying a departures sign at JFK airport. She’s approached by a talkative young blonde kid named Anna (Ava Condron) who’s waiting for her flight. Almost immediately, Aleyna is hassled by a security guard (Noelle Jordan) who asks to search her bag.
Mitchell’s clever casting creates an ironic layering of oppression; Jordan as an African-American woman plays the culturally-profiling security guard. Post-inspection, Anna smilingly holds out her own bag. The guard reluctantly obliges with a cursory look for appearances. While it’s a heartwarming moment, James’ work ultimately feels a little too simplistic. You wish for a fuller narrative that moves beyond what feels like a binary: kids are good and open, while adults are suspicious and guarded.
Alex Flanigan’s Survivor’s Guilt, or, The Jumping-Off Point rounds out Program A’s trio and is produced by the Duquesne University Red Masquers. The somewhat clunky title is one of the few awkward elements in this production. The play takes place at a five-year high school reunion and unites two classmates who were no more than acquaintances.
Carly (Marisa Postava) and Rich (Patrick Nolin) meet at a bridge by the venue, both clutching red Solo cups. The bridge turns out to be the site where a classmate committed suicide in high school. This triggers deeper conversation, and the enshrining darkness and drinking engender secret sharing. At 23, they’re both already exhausted maintaining dual identities, keeping their real selves hidden. Flanigan nicely cracks open questions about living authentically and the fears, real or imagined, that keep us from doing so.
Director John E. Lane, Jr. could have reigned in Postava’s melodramatic tendencies a bit. Physically, Postava’s weak pirouette belies her character’s career as a dancer. Nolin is the stronger of the two actors and possesses a magnetically confident stage presence. He’s able to cut through her sarcasm, and his revelations feel authentic. The play perhaps ends with a bit of false optimism. However, it’s hopeful to aspire to be a better, truer version of ourselves, and that ultimately becomes the thread that ties together all three plays.
Program A of the Pittsburgh New Works Festival continues through September 8th and runs in parallel with Program B, which concludes September 9th. Programs C and D run September 13th to the 23rd. All performances are at the Carnegie Stage in Carnegie. Learn more about the PNWF lineup and purchase a festival pass or per program tickets online at the Pittsburgh New Works Festival.
Tiffany Raymond has her PhD in 20th century American drama from the University of Southern California where her research focused on labor and social protest theatre. She also has two master’s degrees, one from the University of Southern California and one from the University of Tennessee. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her family. In addition to being a theatre nerd, she’s also a tech geek, avid reader and occasional half-marathon runner.
Categories: Archived Reviews