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Review: DINERS, DIVES, AND DREAMERS at Westchester Collaborative Theater

Five Playwrights Wrestle with Reality in One-Act Mini-Festival

Review: DINERS, DIVES, AND DREAMERS at Westchester Collaborative Theater
Emily Aronoff (l) and Julie Griffin are featured in Albi Gorn's "If I Loved You" at Westchester Collaborative Theater. Photo: Gregory Perry


As we Zoom out of the nearly two-year winter of our pandemic discontent, theater fans don't have to look very far to find vestpocket entertainment in the form of live stage performances featuring a montage of fast-moving one-acts, or playlets.

In fact, on a recent Saturday, I found myself acting in one such production mid-day before taking a busman's holiday that evening to enjoy another series of one-acts, on stage through Dec. 10-12 at Westchester Collaborative Theater (WCT) in Ossining (wctheater.org).

Titled "Diners, Dives & Dreamers," the five original pieces form a colorful pastiche. Just about every piece in this collection includes at least one or more characters wafting through a dreamlike state.

Authored by five writers of diverse voices, styles and skillsets, tying the eclectic tales together is a uniform fascination with the meaning of existence, notably the randomness and revelations inherent in human interaction.

Pithy phrases of an existential stripe pop up from the likes of Maya Angelou and Joseph Campbell ("Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning, and we bring it to life.")

TIME IS MEANINGLESS
Other navel-gazing nuggets are issued directly by the playwrights: "Nothing's real except what you think is real" and "Time is meaningless." I suspect most procrastinators would agree with that sentiment.

Mini-festivals like this typically grab the audience's attention with a strong start and close with a memorable finale that lingers like the finish of a fine wine.

The strong start here is "If I Loved You," a passionate and quirky rumination on unrequited love by noted playwright Albi Gorn (Hastings-on-Hudson), whose prolific portfolio makes him a virtual brand name in the Hudson Valley theater community.

Gorn's trademark playfulness juggling words and ideas conjures the mischeviousness of both Brooks and Allen, as in Mel and Woody. He effectively mixes the fantastical with the everyday travails of being inexorably human, yet in his world of "If I Loved You" there's no romantic pursuit so elusive that it can't be rectified with a potent love potion.

UNREQUITED LOVE
Gorn weaves in an easily understood crash course in how the brain works, a palatable lesson that helps frame his touching story of unrequited love. It's brought to life by the solid performances of Emily Aronoff (Pelham), Julie Griffin (Ossining), and the comic interludes expertly provided by Maggie Kramer (Ossining) as a kooky healer of heartaches and headaches.

As with other actors who pop up twice in the show, Griffin does double duty, to powerful effect, by also delivering the monologue "Ode to Flannery," by Evelyn Mertens (Briarcliff Manor). Mertens is more than a writer -- her mastery of imagery, story and the human condition casts her as a portrait artist whose palette is words, each of which she chooses with utmost precision and affection.

Griffin embodies a woman in Section 8 housing whose live-in boyfriend of convenience lost his head in a fit of rage, which causes him to summarily lose face with his girlfriend.

Through the formidable stage presence of the transfixing Griffin (with due credit to savvy director Mel Nocera, of Yorktown Heights), Mertens's finely textured tale unflinchingly pierces the dark corners of the minds of two working class people.

The picture of squalor she paints is consciousness-raising, and yes, we recoil at the reveal, but in her deft hands this morality tale is cautionary rather than unbearable.

OUR PRIVILEGED GAZE
As if making us stare at a raw wound, Mertens pries open our jaded eyes to a sordid layer of society, racked by misfortune and misery, from which we normally avert our privileged gaze and, by doing so, also involuntarily withhold our empathy.

"Ode to Flannery" does not pussyfoot around making its climactic point, which lands with the impact of a numbing thud.

The memorable finish for the WCT show is Bronx resident Robert McEvily's "Full Effect," effectively directed by Susan Ward (Ossining). It is a lot of things, like mysterious, tantalizing, loopy, but what it's not is any one thing that is easily defined. It's also inventive and a tad experimental. Much of its charm is that it defies convention.

The austere set notwithstanding, we feel transported to an avant garde art gallery by this provocative piece, thanks in large measure to the mesmerizing performances of Brenna Hughes, Katie May Porter, La Rivers (all New York City), and Dimitri Dewes, Jr. (Chestnut Ridge).

McEvily's message in "Full Effect" points persistently in One Direction: The only reality is the one trapped inside your head. Your perspective is wholly proprietary, unique to you and you alone. Nothing else is verifiable, really, or surreally.

PERFORMERS ALL
As we watch this simulation of performance art, the performers comment on watching us watch them. The narrative is that we all are performers on our own little stage that goes wherever we go.

Are McEvily's people actually playing in a metaverse of augmented reality, where we (the audience) are the unwitting performers and they (the actors) are the paying customers -- the voyeurs, as it were? All I know is we, the audience, applauded after it ended. But, then again, so did they, the actors. Hmm.

On the WCT bill are two more diverting one-acts: "The Hereafter Cafe" by Joe Carlisle of Croton-on-Hudson, and "Sight Unseen" by Lori Myers of Irvington.

In his bit of whimsy, nicely helmed by Pat O'Neill (Bronx), Carlisle has fun imagining where three guys in a fatal car accident find themselves after buying the farm. Among the revelations they embrace is that cursing is encouraged as a form of therapy. WTF?

The capable cast cavorting in the cafe is Rob Ansbro (Mahopac), Anne Glickman (Croton), and Peekskill's Brian Bagot and Christian Larson.

Directed with his usual flair by theater veteran Christopher Arena (New Rochelle),"Sight Unseen" is a variaton on the "beauty's only skin deep" trope, with the charismatic Dewes as a metrosexual on the make; Hughes as the ice cool customer he's enamored with; and laconic Larson as the voice of reason. All are very well cast and form a fluid ensemble, with Larson an acerbic counterpoint to Dewes's dewy-eyed, if artless, pickup artist.

Alan Lutwin is executive director and producer of Westchester Collaborative Theater. Brenda Hettmansberger of Carmel is stage manager; Gisela O'Brien of Briarcliff Manor is assistant stage manager; Jeff Ramsey of Ossining is house manager.



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