An unlikely hodgepodge of names gets dropped in the course of Red Bull Theater’s Short New Play Festival: Virginia Woolf, Rachel Dolezal, Troilus, Cressida, Cervantes, Trump. But the name that gets dropped hardest — dropped in the sense that it all but disappears — is that of the production’s touchstone, Noël Coward.
The eight 10-minute sketches that make up the 10th edition of the festival, which premiered via livestream on Monday evening and will remain available online through Friday, were meant to respond to Coward’s 1930 play “Private Lives,” a comedy of manners polished so bright you can see yourself in it. Beneath the silver plate, its antic story of a divorced couple who reunite while honeymooning with new spouses is more melancholy than you may recall. Humans, it suggests, are cursed to be least compatible with those they are most drawn to.
Perhaps that’s true of theaters, too. Though “leadership support provided by the Noël Coward Foundation” may have helped to paper the problem over, Coward is not an intuitive match for Red Bull, which has generally devoted itself to the sanguinary dramas and elevated verse of the Jacobean period. At any rate, the festival’s offerings, which include commissioned works by two marquee names — Theresa Rebeck and Jeremy O. Harris — do not in general suggest much compatibility with Coward. And only a few of the other offerings, selected in a contest from more than 500 entries, make any meaningful allusion to the plot and themes (and comic punch) that power “Private Lives.”
Rebeck’s play, “Something in the Ground,” is if anything less amusing than her usual fare, perhaps because its plot, in which family and neighbors squabble over the opportunity to monetize ecological disaster, appears to predate the commission. Aptly dense with buried poisons, it deserves full-length exploration; still, if 10 minutes isn’t enough to dramatize the viciousness of capitalism, it’s enough to give the cast, Charlayne Woodard in particular, several wonderful moments to shine.
Harris’s play, “Fear and Misery of the Master Race (of the Brecht),” has only the tenuous connection of a pun to tie it to Coward. (It is partly inspired by a Brecht play whose alternative title is “The Private Life of the Master Race.”) Otherwise it is recognizably and entirely Harris, a field guide to the many species of racism, seen through the distorting lenses of satire. Choosing four events from 2015 as his springboard — the death of Sandra Bland, the rampage of Dylann Roof, the blackpropriation of Dolezal and the candidacy of Trump — Harris forefronts the other half of the Black Lives Matter story: the one that happens in white people’s homes when they think history can’t hear them. As the Dolezal figure, a white woman streaming a tutorial to Black women on how to “love your hair right,” Louisa Jacobson brilliantly embodies the toxic endpoint of microaggression.
I suppose you could argue that anything set behind closed doors, or in isolation from the world, counts as a response to “Private Lives.” But two of the contest winners go further, borrowing Coward’s format — or at least the famous adjacent balconies on which his Elyot and Amanda rediscover each other — to tell their stories.
Leah Maddrie makes it plain in her title: “Love Adjacent, or Balcony Plays.” But her Elyot and Amanda are a Black couple named Troy (Peter Francis James) and Cressie (Woodard), more formally known as Troilus and Cressida. Their new (white) spouses, in the original Sibyl and Victor, are likewise grafted onto Shakespearean characters; to say which ones would be to spoil the surprise. A happy ending — and the unexpected overlay of rhymed pentameter couplets — makes this the easiest of the eight to absorb.
Probably the tightest is “Old Beggar Women,” by Avery Deutsch. This one, too, takes place on adjoining balconies, but in a nursing home instead of a Deauville hotel. There, by amazing playwriting coincidence — or perhaps not — Sibyl, in her 70s, encounters Amanda, in her 80s. Deliciously, neither can remember Elyot’s name, though both were married to him; along with men, the male gaze has disappeared from the story. If not very credible, the plot at least is engaging and unexpected, and as a sequel to Coward succeeds more than its contrivances might suggest.
Part of that, again, is Woodard, who handily swaps personalities and styles in five of the eight plays. Here she plays Sibyl to the Amanda of Kathleen Chalfant, likewise dependably precise and piquant. That the evening’s women (who also include Jacobson, Ali Ahn and the terrific Lilli Cooper) are generally more compelling than the men (James, Frankie J. Alvarez, Edmund Donovan and William Jackson Harper) may be the natural result of plays that are less interested in the Elyots of this world than the Sibyls and Amandas. (Two of the festival’s directors, Vivienne Benesch and Mêlisa Annis, are women and the third, Em Weinstein, identifies as nonbinary.)
That dynamic continues in the remaining plays, two of which, without sampling Coward, at least nod to him in passing. Both “Plague Year” by Matthew Park and “In the Attic” by Jessica Moss pick up his battle-of-the-sexes theme, with women winning the battle decisively. In Park’s play, a resourceful woman in plague-time England (Cooper) must save herself, and her baby girl, from both a domineering husband (Donovan) and a thoughtless lover (Alvarez). Moss takes the theme of novel romantic arrangements even further, mashing “Private Lives” with “Rebecca” and “Jane Eyre” (and its stepdaughter, “Wide Sargasso Sea”) into a deliciously silly Pythonesque squib.
The virtues of the remaining two plays are not Cowardy ones. Though “Evermore Unrest,” by Mallory Jane Weiss, unpacks a relationship between a woman (Ahn) and her ex (Alvarez) through fragments of letters, texts and scrawls on foggy mirrors, its main concern is not romantic, but ecological. Likewise, Ben Beckley’s “Outside Time Without Extension” gives us the measure of two lovers (Ahn and Harper) but is more of a formal experiment, allotting one minute of its length to each 10 years of their lives.
And yet perhaps Beckley’s play — the evening’s opener — is more like “Private Lives” than I at first supposed. Its side-by-side Zoom panes do, after all, simulate the effect of adjacent balconies. And when Ahn and Harper later move into a single frame (apparently, they are quarantining together) the shock of intimacy that made Coward so modern is deftly recreated. How long since we’ve seen a stage kiss?