Through May 5 at the Fells Point Corner Theatre
It turns out that it's easier to make people laugh in 10 minutes than it is to sober them up.
The third annual 10x10 Festival at the Fells Point Corner Theatre offers 10 10-minute plays by 10 different playwrights, performed by 10 different actors in 29 roles, overseen by nine different directors. The plays are chosen through an open competition, and this year's finalists include five Marylanders (four from Baltimore) and five out-of-staters from Massachusetts to California.
Of the 10 plays-no more than scenes, really-six are comedies and four are dramas. Given the constraints imposed by the festival's concept, the results are surprisingly good. All the titles, save one ("Garden Variety"), are entertaining, but the comedies are more satisfying than the dramas.
That's because the dramas tend to open up more issues than they can resolve in 10 minutes. In Richard Ballon's "The Accident," for example, two African-American sisters learn that their families are mixed up with some nasty gangsters, but we never know the outcome of their trouble, because the clock runs out. It's superbly written and acted (by Adrienne Knight and Christen Cromwell), but it feels like an excerpt rather than a self-contained work.
Pat McGeever's "Confeteor" depicts a confrontation between a union worker (David Shoemaker) and a Pinkerton assassin (Justin Johnson) in the Pennsylvania coal fields of 1876. It starts out powerfully, with a loaded pistol and a flash of recognition, but then it tries to cram too many plot points into its final five minutes.
More successful are the funny plays, because they have a useful role model: TV sketch comedy. Hours of watching Seinfeld reruns have taught us just how much-and not a bit more-you can squeeze into the 10 minutes between commercial breaks. In "Missed Connections," a Craigslist ad about an unfinished flirtation at a Whole Foods store brings two people (Kate Shoemaker and Andrew Porter) to a coffee shop for a witty series of disappointments and revived hopes. The depths of human experience are not revealed, but Marj O'Neill-Butler's script moves briskly and crisply through the comic complications like good TV writing.
Even funnier is Katy Bishop's "Rare Affair," which concerns Nina (Kate Shoemaker), a wedding planner who specializes in gay male nuptials and wants to branch out into lesbian ceremonies. Nina has a lot of amusing trouble shifting gears from the catty snaps of her male clients to the touchy-feely bromides of her prospective female clients (played by Kat Schadt and Anne Shoemaker). The latter two actresses also star in Sharon Goldner's "In Love with Bobby," a predictable but funny sketch about four junior-high students nursing crushes, passing notes, and negotiating the chasm between the "popular kids" and the "leftovers."
Predictability is always a challenge in this kind of sketch writing, because the initial setup so often implies the jokes to come. Even Ron Burch's "Albert Einstein's Brain," which has its protagonist (Brian Kehoe) buying the title item on eBay, quickly becomes a familiar tussle between a nerdy, immature husband and his long-suffering wife (Amy Mulvihill). The other two dramas, by contrast, take their cues from another TV role model-The Twilight Zone-to surprise us with a plot twist in the final minutes.
Kevin Brian's "Pecan Pie" depicts two women waiting for a late-night bus in a sketchy part of town. The white waitress (Kate Shoemaker) is a jittery, paranoid bundle of nerves, while the black mother (Christen Cromwell) is calm and reassuring, especially when the waitress sees men in white masks and black hoods approaching. But not everything is as it seems in either this play or in Daniel Collins' "Transference," which at first seems to have a Nazi officer (David Shoemaker) interrogating a political prisoner (Justin Johnson) in gray hospital clothes. The surprise here doesn't work as well as the one in "Pecan Pie" because Brian's dialogue delivers an emotional jolt in addition to the mind games.
The best show of the whole evening, though, is Chris Shaw Swanson's "Getting Lucky." A married couple (Justin Johnson and Adrienne Knight) have sent their kids off to her mother's for the evening and are looking forward to a night of serious romance. Before she goes to change into a red negligee, however, the wife asks her husband to feed their daughter's hamster. Hamster-feeding is not the best prelude to romance, but he gets the cage, only to find that something's wrong with the rodent. Now what should he do? 'Fess up and spoil the mood? Lie about it and face the consequences later?
The attempted cover-up is hilarious, but behind the jokes is a knowing look at the challenges of being both parents and lovers in a marriage. In a strong 10-person cast, Johnson stands out as a skinny lightning rod who finds humor in the direst situations and danger in the funniest. And any scene that can make you laugh out loud and swallow hard in the same 10 minutes is one to remember. ■