PNWF Program A: 2019

By Eva Phillips

An embittered villain bent on vindication and clearing his literary reputation. A purgatorial lesson in the subtleties of the bard. A blind date that perhaps is not so oblivious to age or consequences.

These are the stakes and scenarios at hand in the trio of plays in Program A of the 2019 Pittsburgh New Works Festival. Crafted by a triad of playwrights who demonstrate a firm grasp on the machinations of the genres and styles in which they respectively operate, this offering from PNWF seeks to probe and dissect the expectations and confidences we are all too quick to settle for, whether personally or mythically.

Jeff DeSantis’ “Who’s Afraid” (produced by South Park Theatre) accomplishes much more than simply tease the audience with one of the most played with titles in literary and theatrical history. Unlike the most recent wo(o)lf in dramatic memory to be the source of audience fear, DeSantis calls upon the OG wolf (you know, the big and bad one) for the source material of this utterly charming short piece. Staged with the seedy nostalgia of a Jenny Jones or Maury-esque tawdy talk show, “Who’s Afraid” opens with a sharply dressed Wolf (Erick Rigby) earnestly attempting to redeem his sullied reputation by pleading his case on national television to host Richard Small (Andy Coleman). Things go expectedly haywire when the begrudging, now homeless three little pigs (or not so little, for the sake of the story)–Kevin (Derek Lynch), Larry (Tim Tolbert) and Bart (Peter Nelson)–storm the stage to confront the wolf for the various traumas and devastations he has caused in their lives. Appearances and sob stories are not always what they seem, of course, and this adage is turned on its head more times than one might expect throughout DeSantis’ tight, enjoyable work. Consistently strong showings from every performer complement the solid, pithy writing that carries “Who’s Afraid” to its delightfully abrupt conclusion.

PJ Roup delivers calculated irreverence and cutting critiques as he delves into what some people would deem one of the most dreaded evils in a social active adult’s life–the blind date. What’s more, Roup’s “The Setup” (produced by The Bobcat Players) centers around a blind date arranged by a blissfully married couple (you know the type), and is doomed from the get-go by a significant age gap (and even more disparate personality difference). “The Setup,” a title that is perhaps a genre-entendre in its own right, tweaks convention, and its capable cast thoroughly entertains–with particularly enjoyable moments from performers Erin Bock and Gwen Gibson.

While all three works of Program A are impressive and enjoyable in their own right, the  strongest showing of the group is Michael Wolfson’s “A Learning Experience” (produced by McKeesport Little Theatre) I admittedly was deduced the game that was afoot, so to speak, in Wolfson’s phenomenal piece, but the expert writing and stunning performances of the tight cast of three–Steven F. Gallagher, Betsy Novotny, and D. Palyo–kept me more than enthralled from start to killer finish. Novotny is a standout, and her effulgent talent is a thrill to watch as her character Minnie, a snarky diner waitress (who knows far more than she lets on) gleefully torments Palyo’s insufferably cocksure Shakespeare scholar, Grassley, while deftly ricocheting between arcane, precise lines from Shakespeare’s oeuvre. There’s not much I can say about “A Learning Experience” that wouldn’t spoil the sinister fun, but the surrealistic construction and brilliant dialogue that Wolfson has created make for wildly compelling, successful theatre.

The outstanding lineup for Program A bodes very well for the caliber of the rest of the playwrights, actors, and shows that make up PNWF. To learn more about the festival, dates of the remaining Programs, tickets, and how to get involved in the future, visit PNWF‘s site.

Categories: Archived Reviews

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