Fort Worth — Workers of the world, unite? Well, not exactly.
SceneShop’s 19th summer showcase of short plays and monologues—the SceneShop: J.O.B edition—touches down only briefly on the most obvious issue: the current state of the American Job, and the American Dream it won’t pay for anymore. Instead, the “job” theme that runs like a warped thread through this collection of six short plays and monologues at Arts Fifth Avenue weaves its way into some surprising territory.
Several of the men and women we meet actually have a workplace and a paycheck, at least for now. But others are driven to take on important tasks that won’t earn them a dime; some find happiness (possibly illegal) in, er, less traditional forms of employment—and a few seem to be taking a time-out from work altogether.
In short, don’t work too hard to connect the thematic dots. As always, this SceneShop has some vivid moments; it’s fun to see writers directing their own work, or watch actors from other summers take on different/larger roles—and you can stroll back to AFA’s little bar for an adult beverage or a snack to see you through.
Kyle Irion’s The Evaluation tries for an absurdist vibe, but forgets that even a madcap world needs internal logic. A corporate type (SceneShop founder Steven Alan McGaw) with a clipboard full of questions runs a young employee (Michael Carver-Simmons) through his 90-day evaluation. McGaw is big and blustery, and Carver-Simmons has the innocent stare of a buttoned-down baby deer—though as the questions become louder and less sane, he fights back with some quick and crafty thinking. This piece has a number of good laughs, and the actors are plenty funny, but who can follow the game if all the questions come from an infinite number of left fields? “The scales are always changing, buddy boy!” spits McGaw as the kid tries to figure out how he’s doing. That may be true—and how very Alice in Wonderland—but this piece still needs to find a point and head in its general direction.
Dale Shelton and Allison Willoughby act in their co-written play Mulligan’s, a quick slice of (bad) life about workers in a chain restaurant that’s not doing well. Teamed with Joshua Eguia, the actors blast in and out of the “backstage” part of the restaurant, blowing off steam about the customers, the cook, the pay, the management. It’s all too true, and verifies our nightmares about what’s really happening to our food when we can’t see it. Shelton is guru-like and suspiciously serene as the wise veteran waiter; Willoughby is both a sweet hostess and a potty-mouthed waitress (don’t order soup from this woman); and Eguia plays a just-hired waiter whose first day might be his last. His other role, as the stooped, be-wigged older waitress Maria, is un-PC on so many levels—and hilarious.
Nicholas Irion’s Byway features a quiet and compelling performance from Steven Cashion, who made a SceneShop splash last summer as an explosive business type in Hotter. Here he’s Jack, a guy who builds things and runs his own business—a steady sort in confrontation with young employee Neil (A.J. Blake). But it turns out that Neil is more than just a guy who works for Jack—and that Jack knows that the best work in life can, sometimes, be a job that’s entirely off the corporate clock. Byway’s early minutes are a bit of a muddle—we really struggle to understand what’s up between these two men—but once the playwright settles into his story, it leads to a surprisingly heartfelt ending.
Mine Likes It When She Don’t See Me, written by Chris E. Gepp, is a shaggy one-man story told by actor Travis J. Fant, who plays a small-time guy on the lookout for better opportunities. Why not a regular job? He and his friends have already figured out “that shit don’t pay.” Working his way up to bigger and better crimes, Fant’s character teams up with a mugger, nearly becomes roadkill courtesy of a pink Cadillac, and meets a “Ninja princess bad-ass.” Fant’s cheery, bright-eyed delivery is a crackup as he chronicles his crazy path to a better life.
The evening’s second monologue, Home.School, is a strongly written coming-of-age story from Steven Alan McGaw. Michael Wittman is Micah, the oldest son in a large family. It begins with a sweet scene of Mom driving Micah to get a new puppy—but the warning flags start to fly almost immediately. Micah tells us the puppy is his responsibility, because Mom is so overloaded with work already—and Dad won’t let him help her. Dad, it seems, is “picky” about housework (for women), about school (at home), about girls (don’t talk to them), about television and radio and anything else he can’t control. Wittman gives a sensitive, tightly wound performance as Micah, who has to grow up too fast. In this play, a boy’s understanding of the words “my job” grows from puppy-sized to man-sized—and hits very close to home.
The play A Long, Damned Night, co-written by Natalie Gaupp and McGaw, is set in a small-town Texas bar on a dark and stormy night, with three actors already in place (Gaupp, Eguia and Eugene Chandler) and a fourth (Debbie Dacus) to come. Bar owner Opal (Gaupp) offers shots to retired trucker Merle (Chandler) and IT guy David (Eguia) if they’ll share scary stories to while away the time. We aren’t really sure why they seem quite so stuck in the storm, but whatever. Somehow, Opal says, she knows “We’re meant to be here tonight.”
There’s a mysterious cell phone and radio blackout, and a Twilight Zone vibe coming on strong—even before the appearance of elegant Mrs. Ellsworth from Houston (Dacus), who sips martinis and distracts the others when they try to leave. Hmmmm…do we smell fire and brimstone? The actors fit nicely into their roles—there’s a funny visual contrast between Dacus’ smooth widow and Chandler’s rough-edged ol’ boy as they share a small bar table. The piece needs to move faster (maybe the ghost stories need a trim?), but ends the night with a nice bang. (The whole evening clocks in at three hours.)
SceneShop: J.O.B will play next weekend, too, with performances at 8 p.m. on Aug. 8 and 9. The two-man group Pasticcio performs beginning at 7:30 on Friday, and City Light Singers perform before the show on Saturday.