Festival of Shorts

Playhouse West in Walnut Creek

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All I need to make a comedy,” Charlie Chaplin once wrote, “is a park, a policeman, and a pretty girl.” It’s a principle embraced by many a comic mind. Take the simplest of situations, tweak it slightly, and then let it spiral madly out of control.

In Playhouse West’s Festival of Shorts, elaborate is not an option. There are eight comedies performed in one evening, leaving each only about fifteen minutes to get the ball rolling. It’s frothy fun, but while director Lois Grandi sticks to your basic situational stuff, she includes work from new and local playwrights, and has cast some terribly funny actors.

The entire evening is set in a restaurant. We start off at dinner with a couple (Sandy Souhrada D’Amato and Morgan Mackay) passionately discussing overpopulation, in A Geometric Digression of the Species. It’s a clever, if not fully realized, exploration of what it means to feel crowded, and has a provocative, form-breaking ending. Grandi stages it more for yuks than for theme, but it’s enough to whet one’s interest.

After two promising but ultimately incomplete-feeling sketches (Wives and Anything for You), we get to the high point of the first half: The Waiter from Hell, written for this festival by Jim Geoghan. It’s Saturday Night Live-style fun, with a virtuoso performance from Ted D’Agostino as the titular server. A couple (Michael Leitch and Jeanette Harrison) arrives for dinner, greeted by the exquisitely obnoxious D’Agostino. When they complain that something’s not fair, he retorts with contempt, “Why don’t you move to a country that’s fair, then? Why don’t you move to Fairslavia?”

The second half kicks off with Getting to Know You, a blind date farce that’s somewhat Seinfeld-lite, with a few mild laughs. More notable is the gentle Time Out, by Bay Area playwright John Angell Grant. A former party boy (Mackay) meets his old college girlfriend (D’Amato) twenty years later, with hesitation and regrets. It’s the most nuanced piece in this festival, and while it lingers too long on exposition of the relationship’s history, Mackay hits the right awkward, hopeful note. Certainly it’s a nice slowing of pace in an over-the-top evening.

The farce resumes with the 1920s comedy Red Carnations by Glenn Hughes. It’s the festival’s only period piece, but it fits in squarely, with a mistaken-identity plot about two men (Mackay and D’Agostino) who claim to have been invited to meet the same woman (Zehra Berkman) in a restaurant. The ’20s costumes are lovely, the wit is cutting, and girl-next-door Berkman is a very winning presence.

Eavesdropping Without Listening, a one-trick pony that involves the full cast, is the grand finale. Three couples in the same restaurant have unrelated discussions at different tables, but appear to finish each other’s sentences. Rather dirty-minded, Eavesdropping wrings laughs out of someone at one table starting, “You don’t understand, I need some…” and someone at another table exclaiming her husband’s name, “Dick!” While it’s not the most substantive piece to close on, it’s a crowd-pleaser, and garners plenty of laughs. In fact, the whole show got regular laughs the evening I attended, which is more than I can say for some three-act comedies. A festival of shorts is not only a pleasure for attention-span-challenged audiences, but also a splendid showcase for developing playwrights. In fact, it would be a nice regular season choice for Playhouse West. It’s the perfect illustration of what Charlie Chaplin knew to be true: comedy isn’t about fancy ingredients, but about giving simple elements a chance to explode.