Review: An Ayn Rand Affair and God’s Squash Game, at Summer Shorts
Summer Shorts 2017: Series A
By ELISABETH VINCENTELLI AUG. 1, 2017
From left, Orlagh Cassidy, Sam Lilja and Brontë England-Nelson in “Acolyte,” part of the Summer Shorts mini-festival at 59E59 Theaters. Credit Carol Rosegg
Ayn Rand’s life was so extraordinary it was made to be fictionalized. Graham Moore did just that in his one-act play “Acolyte,” which revolves around Rand’s affair with her much younger disciple Nathan Branden (Sam Lilja). In Mr. Moore’s telling, set in 1954, Rand’s husband, Frank (Ted Koch), appears too drunk to care, while Branden’s wife, Barbara (Brontë England-Nelson), reacts with shock and indignation.
Quincy Dunn-Baker and Claire Karpen in “Jack,” part of the mini-festival’s Series A. Credit Carol Rosegg
“Acolyte,” which concludes Series A of 59E59 Theaters’ annual Summer Shorts mini-festival, is so tantalizing that you want to know more about what happened, yet it also works perfectly in 30 tight minutes. (Dramatizing history is a specialty for Mr. Moore, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for “The Imitation Game,” about the British codebreaker Alan Turing, and whose novel “The Last Days of Night” pits Thomas Edison against George Westinghouse.)
As written by Mr. Moore and portrayed by Orlagh Cassidy, Rand is a coiled snake, an aloof, superior smile on her lips as she watches the others, before unleashing silver-tongued, self-serving sophistry. Here, she applies to her marital — and extramarital — business the self-interest she extolled in her writings. Mr. Moore sometimes becomes bogged down in philosophical jargon, but “Acolyte” is a chilling depiction of the mechanics of a guru’s hold on others.
Bill Buell, left, and Dana Watkins in “Playing God.” Credit Carol Rosegg
Opening the evening is Melissa Ross’s “Jack,” a seemingly lighthearted piece that lands quite the emotional punch. Ms. Ross confirms the ear for dialogue and attention to revealing details she displayed a couple of years ago in “Nice Girl” — directed, like “Jack,” by Mimi O’Donnell. Here, Ms. Ross economically describes people figuring out how to relate to each other following their divorce. Six months after splitting, George and Maggie (Quincy Dunn-Baker and Claire Karpen, both pitch-perfect) meet to sort out some unfinished business connected to the (unseen) title character. Ms. Ross sometimes flirts with cutesiness but always stops short, and she neatly captures the ebb and flow of a conversation — the passive-aggressive jabs, the bad-faith questioning, the illogical leaps, but also the underlying affection and trust earned over during a long relationship.
Alan Zweibel supplies the sugary filling in the Series A sandwich with “Playing God,” a comic interlude in which the Supreme Being (Bill Buell) punishes a callow doctor (Dana Watkins) by taunting him into a game of squash. It may feel like an extended skit, but Mr. Zweibel — a member of the original “Saturday Night Live” writing team and the co-creator of “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” — has a way with old-school one-liners. He also has a perfect accomplice in Mr. Buell: The actor’s face does not appear to move, his inflection does not really vary, and yet he somehow kills with every single line. Perhaps that is what God-given talent means.
Summer Shorts 2017: Series A
NYT Critic’s Pick
59 E. 59th St.
Category Off Broadway, Play
Credits "Playing God" by Alan Zweibel, directed by Maria Mileaf ; "Jack" by Melissa Ross, directed by Mimi O'Donnell; "Acolyte" by Graham Moore, directed by Alexander Dinelaris
Cast Bill Buell, Flora Diaz, Dana Watkins, Welker White, Quincy Dunn-Baker, Claire Karpen, Orlagh Cassidy, Ted Koch, Sam Lilja, and Brontë England-Nelson
Preview July 21, 2017
Opened July 30, 2017
Closing Date September 1, 2017