For the most part, Christopher Durang writes sketches, not plays. Even his longer works have that quality. Sometimes the sketches are funny; sometimes they're just pretentious.
The "Durang Festival" at Hunger Artists Theatre in Santa Ana, runs from funny to flat, but all of these Durang snippets look like Saturday Night Live outtakes. They have no point, no interesting statement, nothing anywhere near character development. They are for the dyed-in-the-wool Durang fan who accepts a couple of good laughs as real theater.
Most of the sketches are good study pieces for young actors and directors. They require crisp timing, clarity and hopefully the ability to use comic reserve--that quality of holding back a touch that can make a laugh twice as big. Most of the time, the Hungry Artists company succeeds in these exercises.
Five of the scenes are directed by company artistic director Timothy C. Todd. The others are guided by Eric Eisenbrey and Rebecca Green. All three directors race their actors through the material, which is all to the good with any comedy, but especially with Durang. Crisp timing and artful staging in the small space help a lot.
The most successful of the seven skits in the program are the shortest ones.
"Women in a Playground," about two mothers watching their toddlers at play, with Larissa Cahill and Melissa Petro, and "Phyllis & Xenobia," with the same actresses playing two deranged sisters, are charming and funny. But even with good performances, the sketches are so brief they're really pointless.
The shortest, and most successful, piece, with Christopher Lansing as "The Gym Teacher," is a monologue by a super-macho militaristic jock, teaching a middle-school gym class that, because of skimpy funding, is coeducational. He assails the girls with the same juvenile sex talk he gives the boys, and it's actually hilarious, if not politically correct. And of all the pieces, it makes the most potent point, especially in Lansing's raw-boned performance.
Also funny, but too derivative to really work, is "DMV Tyrant," with Gigi Parker getting all the right laughs while dismissing a poor customer (Alex Dorman).
"Funeral Parlor," with Cahill (alternating with Petro) as the grieving widow, and Dorman as an obnoxious mourner, has some smiles in it, but no big laughs. Durang drags this one out too long for its own good.
The two longest pieces are the dullest because they try to be plays without even getting close.
" 'dentity Crisis," with Lisa Freccero, Lauren Mora, Cory Schonauer, Scott MacLeod and Kathleen Hurley, under Eisenbrey's energetic guidance, has its own identity crisis. It could make a statement about reality but doesn't and lumbers confusedly to an end.
"Naomi in the Living Room," directed with pizazz by Green, has Jami McCoy as a lunatic of a mother-in-law riding roughshod over her son and daughter-in-law (Dorman, Parker), and is made bearable by the very overplayed but hysterically funny McCoy, who thinks funny and therefore is. In this one, the son is a cross-dresser, one of three in the evening's skits. Durang seems obsessed by men in women's clothes.
* "Durang Festival," Hunger Artists Theatre, 204 E. 4th St., Santa Ana. Thursday-Saturday, 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Ends Sunday. $10-$12. (714) 547-9100. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Christopher Lansing: Gym Teacher
Larissa Cahill: Susan/Ethel/Xenobia
Alex Dorman: Marcus/Customer/John
Lisa Freccero: Jane
Lauren Mora: Edith
Cory Schonauer: Robert
Scott MacLeod: Mr. Summers
Kathleen Hurley: Woman
Gigi Parker: DMV Lady/Johnna
Melissa Petro: Alice/Phyllis
Jami McCoy: Naomi
A Hunger Artists Theatre Company production of Christopher Durang sketches. Directors: Timothy C. Todd, Eric Eisenbrey and Rebecca Green. Scenic design: Melissa Petro. Lighting design: Bryan Schulte. Sound design: Andrew Dalzell. Stage manager: Jill Johnson.