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BWW Review: Neo Ensemble Theatre's AIRPORT ENCOUNTERS Is an Entertainment Knockout

Airport Encounters/10 separate mini-plays/ written by: Jessica Matthews, Larry Gene Fortin, Starina Johnson, Beth Polsky, Scott Mullen (2), Nancy Van Iderstine, Laura Huntt Foti, and Rom Watson(2)/directed by Joe Ochman and Richard Pierce/NEO Ensemble Theatre at The Lounge, Hollywood/through October 16

I rarely use the word brilliant to describe the work I've seen. There are so many good actors, directors and writers in this town that one must be careful not to be too generous and overuse one's praise. Unlike one reviewer who calls everything he sees the best and gives an award of merit to all of them, I choose to be more selective. This is my very first time at Neo Ensemble Theatre under the new artistic direction of Paul Elliott, and I am exceedingly impressed with the acting, direction and particularly the writing. Airport Encounters, onstage at the Lounge on Santa Monica Blvd through October 16 only, is a collection of 10 vignettes that all take place in a big city airport.

One piece flows into another with passengers, pilots, other crew members and various workers, like janitors and cafeteria personnel wandering in and out as they await flights, look around, or just pass through on their way to one venue or another. As quickly as one playlet ends with a couple exiting to catch their flight, the other begins with no lags or interruptions. It's as if a camera were filming the actual goings-on at a real airport waiting area, and we are looking on, watching the odd assortment of people, singles, marrieds, mother and daughter, or total strangers who sit and out of politeness or whatever, begin to chat with one another. Directors Joe Ochman and Richard Pierce keep a lively pace throughout, and the entire evening is delightful with some vignettes hysterically funny and others quite engrossing with poignant, very human content. I am picking my favorite three to talk about and will mention a few other performances of note, but, believe me, it's all great, an evening not to be missed. And the writing is way beyond sitcom flavor; for short plays - that usually turn out to be nothing more than flimsy sketches - this is just the opposite... with some pretty terrific writing.

In the first half I am choosing Border Towns by Starina Johnson for its lovely humanity and Therapy Dog by Scott Mullen for its off the wall sense of humor. Joe Ochman has directed both.

In Border Towns, a doctor (Charles Howerton) and a woman (Tracy Eliott) meet by accident. She, as it turns out, is a cancer victim on her way to Mexico for radical treatment. Johnson has fashioned a believable scenario in which the middle-aged woman opens up and discusses her predicament with candor. He is a gentle man who does not confide his occupation until he feels a deep need to offer advice. It's blunt but wise ... spend her remaining time doing what she really wants to do. Howerton plays the best kind of doctor, one who treats patients and not the disease. Eliott plays a sensitive woman, more than willing to listen. Lovely writing, direction and acting from Howerton and Eliott.

In Therapy Dog, Steve Oreste plays a man reluctant to believe in the power of a dog to calm a nervous person before a flight. Anthony Marquez plays the dog - or a man in a dog hat crawling around on all fours - and Mimi Umidon is a passenger enamored of the animal. Marquez has a field day physically, as does Oreste, who is eventually won over and coaxed to play a dog himself. Umidon taunts both of them in a scene more sensual than pure sex. It's deliciously naughty, and you will be laughing your socks off at all the antics. What Mullen has achieved is not only funny but goes way beyond its title. It is spicy adult humor that, believe it or not, never exceeds a GP rating.

In the second half, Simple Air by Nancy Van Iderstine, wins the prize hands down as the funniest playlet. It's about an Amish married couple, who shouldn't be flying. It's one of their principles, and as the vignette progresses the wife (Kathleen Cecchin) confesses to her husband (David St. James) a few other disgraceful things she has done. I don't want to spoil this one by giving away too much of the plot, but you will see the Amish break rules and have more fun in fifteen minutes than you could ever possibly imagine. Great acting from Cecchin and St.James and fine direction from Richard Pierce.

I am also signaling out Donaco Smyth as a janitor in the last play Mead and Stu at the Airport. Smyth makes his character, who thinks his psoriasis makes him akin to a dolphin, a real pitiable mensch. An extremely funny and heartwarming performance! (top photo)

I am also praising Brandon Meyer and Nicole Rochell for their engrossing work in Stuck, beautifully written by Scott Mullen. An unlikely relationship results between two young people who both deserve to have an unexpected adventure in their lives.

Don't miss Airport Encounters now through October 16 at the Lounge. Bravo to Neo Ensemble Theatre for original work with an edge and some mighty good performances!

www.neoensembletheatre.org


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