Series B of the Ensemble Studio Theatre's EST/LA Marathon '86--a long name for a series of new one-acts developed at the Studio--is offering a short two-character piece ("Woman Meets Vulture at the L.A. Zoo," written by John Schwarz and directed by Barry Mchlin) and a monologue ("Angel of Mercy," written by Jose Rivera and directed by Linda Callahan).
The two pieces in the Studio's downstairs space receive skeletal productions, are well performed and, in the main, well directed, but the plays themselves are baffling.
The transaction in "Woman Meets Vulture" is a cliche. A self-effacing old-maidish woman (Carolyn Allport in a character you've seen many times before) comes to the L.A. Zoo to down a bunch of pills and presumably end it all. She does this in front of the vulture's cage where, wonder of wonders, the big bird speaks to her (nice voice work by Scanlon Gail in "bird" cape and bright red helmet).
He suggests flying off together to Machu Picchu. She lets down her hair (literally and figuratively), sheds her prim navy blue coat--revealing a diaphanous nightie--and off they sail into the sunset.
One problem is the choice of fantasy. "Woman/Vulture" is a rehashing of such an old equation (lonely princess whisked away by Prince Charming to live happily ever after where the magic never stops) that it's impossible not to wince at the excess of deja vu.
Rivera's "Angel of Mercy" gives us a woman and her infant child on a snowy mountaintop getting ready to do something catastrophic.
This information comes encapsulated in a time-release monologue--leaked to us granule by granule. The trouble is that we're way ahead of the writer. We know very soon where we're headed, and the rest is a challenge only to the actress performing it--a commendable Kate Randolph Burns.
There may indeed be no new ideas, which is why workshops such as this marathon are created: to find new ways to channel old ones. Anything can be fraught with possibility, but to nurture lazy and unexciting writing is a different thing. It leads playwrights down a garden path to self-delusion.
It is a preordained fact of electronic reality that good writing is a scarce commodity these days. The theater, which is having a hard time hanging on to its audiences, is where we hope to find it. Workshops such as this have only one serious, central responsibility: to serve as breeding grounds for original thought, not to shelter numbing reinvention.
Central to this notion is the right to fail, but let the failure be honorable--at its worst honest, at its best provocative. The Ensemble has a solid history of doing that, and doing it well. Remembering its "Power Plays," one can only ask: Are better things to come?
Final performances of Series C at 1089 N. Oxford Ave. run Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday 7 p.m., (213) 466-2226.
Footnote: Given the rudimentary nature of the productions, the cost of tickets for the marathon ($5 to $7 for each series, $20 to $25 for all five) is excessive. New works are a gamble that should be shared more equally with an audience. They should be delivered at a painless price or, better yet, free.