Reviewed by Dr. Tiffany Raymond, PhD
The Pittsburgh New Works Festival (PNWF) 31st season is well underway, running through September 18th. This one-of-a-kind theatre festival is a reminder of Pittsburgh’s robust arts culture. The New Works Festival features four programs across four weekends. Each program runs from Thursday to Sunday and is composed of 3-4 new plays submitted by entrants nationwide. A different regional theater company produces each selected play. PNWF is hugely ambitious in scope and fabulously rich in rewards for attendees.
As humans, newness is naturally intriguing, whether it’s seeing a new summer blockbuster or adding a new vacation destination to our bucket list. There is novelty in the new and allure in the promise of seeing and experiencing something new. The Pittsburgh New Works Festival continually delivers on that wavering mirage of newness.
Program A (August 25-28) was composed of three plays: Mom & Mom, Across A Crowded Room, and I Don’t Know What I’m Doing, the latter two both by Pennsylvania playwrights.
Each production utilizes simple staging that finds each play’s essence while keeping set changes to a minimum between plays.
Tom Cavanaugh’s Mom & Mom, produced by Thoreau, NM company, is the first and shortest of the trio. This 10-minute gem is a hysterical, cross-generational portrayal of two moms. In it, Carol (Lisa Germ) drives her dilating daughter-in-law, Miriam (Hannah Taylor), to the hospital to deliver her first child. Under the craftsmanship of director Alice McCallister (a mom of two herself), Taylor tries to alleviate the pain of childbirth as she hilariously shifts on the car’s backseat, which is composed of three identical chairs in a row.
Taylor communicates both pain and showcases the humor in labor as she goes from stretched across the seats to legs suspended over the back of the seat, sprinkling in a liberal dousing of curse words. Germ perfects the hapless mother-in-law, complete with glasses over her glasses as she drives. Cavanaugh’s whip-sharp dialogue flows as Carol gets defensive at the slightest slight to her son’s character and is wounded at any stray, perceived grievance from her daughter-in-law. She’s also the quintessential older woman behind the wheel – an unwitting menace as she asserts that she knows where she’s going, even as she’s making the wrong choices, and won’t crack the speed limit even under the duress of backseat labor pains.
F.J. Hartland’s Across A Crowded Room is produced by South Hills Players and plays out a long-term what-if scenario for two strangers who meet at a party. The characters are simply named Her (Cristen Stephansky) and Him (Todd Ballenger), which enhances their Everyman quality and the ability to relate to them. While both actors master an excess of dialogue flawlessly, their casting by director Jennifer Luta is questionable. Their May-December age range translates platonically, and given romantic love drives their relationship forward, that missing element impedes authenticity as the words end up lacking emotional resonance.
The most memorable aspect of Across A Crowded Room is that the characters give voice to their internal monologues. This illustrates the highly relatable disconnect between what we say and how we feel. At the start of the play, as Her sees Him approaching at the party, she wants him to stop. As he continues to advance, thinking, “she is the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen,” her inner monologue is screaming that she feels “trapped like a rat in a hellhole.” Despite the disparate starting lines, Her agrees to leave the party with Him for a cup of coffee. Hartland isn’t afraid to lean into the conflicts, cross-purposes, and intricacies that motivate us at any given moment and then promptly allow us to change our minds as stranger danger evolves into attraction.
Erika Spondike’s I Don’t Know What I’m Doing is produced by Little Lake Theatre Company. Spondike’s gender-agnostic roles allow for an array of choose-your-own-adventure compositions dictated by directorial choice. This heightens the play’s long-term relevance as one could see this play with a multitude of gendered castings that highlight different textual conflicts. The main character, The Stranded (Dave Dickey), suffers a tire blowout that leaves him stuck along the highway late at night. During the interminable wait for AAA (Spondike’s version of Beckett’s Godot), The Stranded converses with key people in his life for the company and to pass the time.
Director Joe Eberle chooses women as The Stranded one’s Lover (Masha Ponomareva) and Friend (Apryl Peroney). Ponomareva struggles with adequate vocal projection, but Peroney perfectly channels the role of a long-suffering friend who not only realizes it’s a largely one-sided relationship but has reached her breaking point. The Stranded is driving back from a date turned sexual encounter with The Trickster, whom director Joe Eberle casts as a man (Daniel Krack). The Stranded’s conflicted resistance to societal norms underpins the anxiety that keeps him from being fully present in his other relationships.
Program A is bookended by plays that take place in cars. Both cars are stuck, be it in traffic or roadside, a visual reminder of how we get trapped in our own loops. All three plays reveal the layers and complexities of human communication as an evolving art form. In Across A Crowded Room, Him tells Her that humans are made of stardust, and gazing skyward becomes a thematic connection, reminding us we are all connected to something larger.
The Pittsburgh New Works Festival runs through September 18th. All performances are at the Genesius Theater on Duquesne University’s campus. For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit https://pittsburghnewworks.org/