One One-Night Knockout

I was immediately enthralled by this bit of agitprop theater
“Cloud Life,” a painting by Eric Dever, inspired a play of the same name by Joe Pintauro and was onstage during its reading on Saturday. Gary Mamay

   “A picture’s worth a thousand words.”
    On Saturday night at Guild Hall in a special benefit perform  ance, we heard about 5,000 well-crafted words in staged readings of five short plays, inspired by four paintings and one photograph, all by East End artists. The result was a delightful mix of comedy and drama.
    In particular, the theater crackled with laughter during the last two plays, “Swan Song,” by J. Stephen Brantley, based on Jane Wilson’s painting “Lingering Blue: Bridgehampton,” and “The Love Experiment” by Jenny Lyn Bader, based on a painting by April Gornik called “Mirror Forest.”
    In a literal sense, Ms. Bader’s play was the truest of all to the painting that provided its inspiration, as the three characters on stage, looking out over the house, interacted with Ms. Gornik’s trees, beautifully projected onto an upstage scrim, almost becoming a fourth character.
    The evening began with “Exxon Eats the Odalisque,” painting by John Alexander, play by same name by Lucy Boyle, with Blythe Danner, Sarah Bierstock, and Harris Yulin. Sadly, I missed the first five minutes of this piece, thanks to an even worse-than-usual traffic jam when driving west on Napeague near Cyril’s.
But once seated, I was immediately enthralled by this bit of agitprop theater, complete with the upstage projection of Mr. Alexander’s work, which featured a rather slimy-looking Exxon credit card, with swastikas replacing the X’s in Exxon, and the wonderful, simple truthfulness of the actors.
    In a normal production, the actors have had a month or more of rehearsal, shaping their characters, finding the moment-to-moment nuances in the play. In a staged reading, the less rehearsal, the better, save for whatever simple blocking is worked in. The actors are hearing and saying lines for practically the first time. They are forced to really listen and really respond, because they don’t know exactly what is coming.
    And, according to Tovah Feldshuh, the brilliant actress who appears in the final two pieces of the night, the actor must make a strong character choice, not think about it, and just go with it. Maybe the character is Russian, or maybe he walks with a limp, or maybe the character reminds the actor of her Aunt Bess — whatever it is, just let it flow.
    “Exxon Eats the Odalisque” is about a mermaid, played by Ms. Bierstock, who has swum through crude oil pouring out of two tankers, only to be washed up onto the beach and found by an elderly East Hampton couple, who initially think she is tripping on acid. As they debate the fate of the human race from the oncoming sea of crude oil, they find time to argue over the correct pronunciation of “plover,” and Mr. Alexander’s point, and Ms. Boyle’s, is neatly delivered.
    The second work seemed a bit out of place: an excerpt from the hugely successful “ ’Night, Mother,” written and directed here by Marsha Norman, with Lois Markle and Kate Mueth. I didn’t quite get its connection to “Hurricane XLIX” by Clifford Ross, but maybe I missed something.
    This was followed by “Cloud Life” by Joseph Pintauro, based on a painting by the same name by Eric Dever. In this play, the canvas itself was on the stage. Mr. Pintauro plunges us into a wonderfully uncomfortable world, where a misogynistic painter, played by Stephen Hamilton, is secretly sleeping with both his wife (Kristen Lowman), and her adult daughter (Caitlin Dahl).
    The wife confronts him, without actually saying that she knows, as she tells him about her dream trip through the clouds. It is well directed by Jim Lawson.
    Mr. Pintauro ends with the artist flanked by the two women, and the feeling that there might be more here than just a short play.
    Which brought us to the funniest, most subversive play in the sequence, “Swan Song,” in which a frustrated musician turned East Hampton waiter, played by the young and extremely funny Trevor Vaughn, threatens to blow up the catering hall, and presumably all of East Hampton, while his fellow waiter, played by Kenneth Kilfara, tries to talk him out of it.
    “No, the meatballs are not vegetarian!” Mr. Vaughn screams, and the laughter would have been enough to drown out the fireworks which were heard inside the theater a few minutes earlier, going off at Main Beach.
    Ms. Feldshuh, with her classic comic timing, comes on as a divorcée at whose East Hampton wedding the bomb-wielding waiter played the clarinet. “You’re the best jazz clarinet player on Long Island and nobody cares. You’ve got God in your fingers,” she says, convincing him to “just walk away.”
    Kate Mueth’s direction demonstrated a deep understanding of the very tricky world of absurdist comedy.
    “The Love Experiment,” very well staged by Ari Laura Kreith, was a funny and touching way to finish off the evening, with Ms. Feldshuh playing a shrink with extreme cures for patients, Melissa Errico playing a neurotic hostess so shy she can’t even say hello to her own guests, and Mr. Brantley as a compassionate man.
    The short play is as rare these days as a short story. Guild Hall has shown itself theatrically, throughout this summer season, to be innovative and daring. Kudos.