Sex Life is the Highlight of Balagan’s “Death, Sex: Election Season”

With news coverage cutting from the farcical carnival of American partisanship to the unbearable struggles and atrocities of Syria, Death, Sex: Election Season, (through April 14 at the Erickson Theatre Off Broadway; tickets: $20) Balagan Theatre’s annual local playwrights showcase, fits the times to a tee.

Sex and Death are the constant in this series, with election season as this year’s theme.

There is little depth or insight in this evening of ten-minute plays beyond the conviction that politics makes fools of both leaders and electorate, and we’re all just playing at ridiculous and dangerous games. There are quite a few laughs in this and even a couple poignant moments of excellent writing.

The set is promising. A screen dominates the back wall, low platforms connect to the main playing area via steps, with furniture staged visibly at the sides and a band (Jake Groshong on guitar and vocals, Zac Stowell on drums) parked in the back corner. The simplicity and transparency suggest knowing forethought in the staging.

Simplicity is the strong suit in this form. The ten-minute play, the haiku of theatre, is a proving ground for playwrights. Every minute, every word and action, has to count in order to convey distinct lines, character, relationship and the changes that events bring to them. Alternatively a playwright might slap a disjointed wad of wackiness on the stage and at least keep the audience from boredom. Let deus-ex-machinas abound–and when all else fails just kill everyone on stage.

In Blood in the Water, Nik Doner manages to create both a hopeful vision and an impressively subtle depiction of some of the most faddish types in pop culture. Its goofiness remains a constant through much of the evening. Recount, by Ben McFadden, brings in the other dominant themes: paranoia and misperception.

Kelleen Conway Blanchard’s Amphrite is one of the weaker plays in the evening but Blanchard’s lush language (“…eyes like a monkfish and heads the size of Cadillacs”) almost makes up for it. Matt Smith wins on props alone with Mitt Romney meets the Sphinx.

The highlight of the evening is Wayne Rawley’s contribution, Sex Life. This tidy two-hander is a symphony, all but literally. A very efficient introduction sets off an A-B-A form that borders on repetitive but just manages to justify these two people remaining in one another’s company for as long as they do. It’s a risky piece, especially in its third movement, but playwright, cast and director hold it together.

Sex Life is remarkable in this line-up in that the politics element is not the politics of elections but the politics of the interpersonal. Rawley lays out a battle for sympathy in the utter simplicity of organic revelations. This is what makes all theatre political. It’s not activism, but the power of inspiring empathy for another. Seeing the world through another’s eyes rearranges our power structures and makes new realities tangible.

The second half of the evening largely dispenses with depth as the wacky factor increases. The deep end of the second act comes with Emily Conbere’s The Seeping, which has moments of poetry in its words, actions and relationships. Sadly Conbere undercuts her achievement by relying on obvious and clichéd metaphors. It’s Almost, Maine by way of the Berliner Ensemble.

Jesse Lee Keeter might be aspiring to depth with Election but the result is mostly just overwrought. There’s a lot of killing, stripping, and seduction and little of interest is said. As yet another murder became imminent at Thursday’s performance an audience member was heard whispering “Kill me, too!”

The final act, D.S.R. by Eric Lane Barnes, is an amusing riff on a curious statistic that feels like a dramatization of a stand-up bit. This seems buttoned-down and staid compared with the second act’s opener.

In Slim Pickings Lenore Bensinger seems to be channeling the Duke and Prince of Huckleberry Finn, which is not all bad. There is something appealing about a man portraying Ben Franklin by wearing a shirt, boxers and dildo belt while dancing to Hava Nagila like Arlecchino in Anatevka. It was all the more appealing on Thursday night in that the audience had to imagine hearing Hava Nagila (one presumes) due to technical difficulties—or possibly due to ingenious dramaturgy.

Given that the focus of the evening is on the work of the playwrights, it’s sufficient to say that the acting is never less than adequate and often is quite good. Standouts include Ahren Buhmann, Colleen Robertson, Curtis Eastwood, and Allison Standley.

Also notable is Mark Fullerton’s costume in D.S.R.—a model of efficient understatement—and a prop cat carrier in Mitt Romney Meets the Sphinx. While technical difficulties plagued much of the show, the band did lovely work. Not only did they cover the set changes with comically earnest takes on pop hits, they also provided sound effects. These were most effective in Recount. It’s enough to make one wish the many guns on stage had fired rim shots.