From the very introduction of this year's "Summer Shorts" program, you know that change has finally come to an exhausted tradition. On a multipurpose, utilitarian set that looks like the wall of an abandoned warehouse, a couple of dancers in fishnets flank center stage, where the five-member ensemble — a mix of local and national actors and comedians, including Queer Eye for the Straight Guy cast member Jai Rodriguez — enters to the kind of booming narration fit for a pro wrestling event.
Rodriguez, a Broadway star in musicals such as Rent and The Producers, is about to begin crooning an exceptionally and intentionally unhip song, Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight." But it doesn't matter; the festival's artistic director, John Manzelli, is already telling us that in addition to being a truncated "Summer Shorts," the 2011 revue is also fresher and sexier. The intro feels every bit like the opening of a peak-period Saturday Night Live episode, and the show maintains this energy throughout.
For years, "Summer Shorts" seemed like a wonderful idea that lacked quality control. Historically, 15 to 20 plays a year were divided into "Summer Shorts" proper and its R-rated, late-night cousin, "Undershorts." But if those plays were really the best of the hundreds of submissions, it painted a mediocre picture of contemporary short-play writing.
This year, however, a savage slash in state arts funding from $25,000 to less than $2,500 forced City Theatre to rebrand "Summer Shorts" as a leaner model. It jettisoned "Undershorts," replacing it with a one-man song-and-storytelling revue from Rodriguez called Dirty Little Secrets. Then it plunked Rodriguez into its diverse cast of familiar faces and relative unknowns. The chemistry among them is impeccable, and these eight productions comprise the series' most consistently effective compilation yet.
Of the seven plays, five of them are miniature acting duets that carry all of this year's dramatic heft. In the opener, Aboard the Guy V. Molinari, a man (Gregg Weiner) bumps into a woman (Finnerty Steeves) on an NYC bridge as both try to sneak a closer view at Lady Liberty. Their mordantly funny conversation quickly becomes a tête-à-tête about the competing miseries of their daily lives — a discussion quelled only by a celebration of the temporary as a refuge from the long term.
Strangers also meet in Dos Corazones, a "Summer Shorts" revival about two new mothers (Steeves and Ceci Fernandez), lying in hospital beds after giving birth, who speak different languages but manage to understand their shared problems. It's a poignant, inspirational piece, acted with the perfect balance of frustration, confusion, and empathy.
It's followed by Quiet, Please, a work of subtle, transient longing. Sam (Rodriguez) and David (Stephen Trovillion) are patients in a psychiatrist's office who have been seeing different shrinks at the same time for a number of months. When David broaches a conversation with Sam for the first time, some surprising secrets emerge.
Next up is the program's most explosive play, What Strong Fences Make, a confrontational polemic. It's set on the Palestinian border, where Weiner plays a vengeance-seeking Israeli prepared to use the weapons of Islamic extremism against Muslims.
Everything before it, though, seems to lead up to Hate the Loser Inside. Trovillion plays a Bobby Bowden-like college football coach whose genteel exterior cracks, bit by bit, as he tries in vain to complete a simple TV commercial for kitchen furniture. Trovillion has a standout performance in every "Summer Shorts," and this is his bravura turn in 2011.
If there is a weak link in this year's lineup, it's Mickey Herman Saves the $#&@ World, a convoluted, intergalactic musical biopic parody. It's an overlong opus of geekdom.
But the festival concludes on a hilarious note with Chronicles Simpkins Will Cut Your Ass, a revival that stars Rodriguez as a mean-spirited, ghetto-fabulous elementary schoolgirl and unbeatable diva on the playground's tetherball set. Weiner plays her latest competition, gamely transforming into an unkempt, navel-gazing sixth-grader. The rule should be that if you're blessed to have Rodriguez in your cast, you might as well cast him in drag at least once. It's one of the many success stories in a program that, for once, is completely worth its hefty $45 ticket price.