Short plays, like short stories, must be skillfully wrought to involve the audience instantly, delivering their substance with comparatively little development. So their goals tend to be more modest than those of longer works, and their action more obvious. Still, they can make powerful, lasting impressions.

Theatre at Muddy's 10 Minutes 6 Times is a collection of short plays, four of which have been drawn from the Actor's Theatre at Louisville's annual One-Act Festival; the other two were written by established playwrights Christopher Durang and John Guare. Oddly enough, it's the new plays by the younger playwrights that really hum.

In Cameras, Jon Jory indicts photojournalism for its peculiar ethics--shooting pix of people in trouble instead of helping them--and viewers for getting off on the suffering of others. Although director Darren Schroader's sophisticated staging is stylized and cool, the playlet's political P.O.V. is anything but objective. Photographers appear taking pictures of the audience and everything on stage: A model drops a pair of roses, then another pair of models dances through, backward and forward, over the roses, while the cameras continue to click. There's never enough food for the camera. But the camera can also distance the picture-taker from the thing (or person) being photographed. When a young man kills himself and the photographers keep snapping pictures, we have to wonder about the image-makers' humanity. Annoying, embarrassing and relentless as photography can be, we also come to see this art as potentially ruthless.

After Cameras comes Christopher Durang's Naomi in the Livingroom--quite simply one of his worst plays. A young couple who have just lost all five of their children in a car accident visit the man's demented mother, Naomi--a vicious woman who has a knack for creating hell wherever she is. Her "living" room (the word is used ironically) is one of the lower rungs in the Inferno; Naomi herself is the nasty devil sticking pitchforks into everybody who enters. Director Kelly Toma does some interesting things, keeping the actors moving, making and breaking invisible bonds between them and maintaining a dark, forbidding emotional tone throughout. But neither a good director nor a solid cast can confer genuine insight on this lame material--it's mean-spirited and senseless.

Mark O'Donnell's hilarious Marred Bliss concerns a young engaged couple and their former love interests who return to tempt and congratulate them. The running joke is the language of the play: fractured English that is close enough to the real words to be understood but is never quite right. Substitutes such as "spank you" (for "thank you") and "Jeery flopped out [of school] to join the nervy" tell more about the characters than the correct words would. This is really about how language conceals truth and how people hide what they are actually thinking behind conventional chatter. Vivacious direction by Steve Remund keeps the splendid cast in high gear, and the action moves along speedily.

Intermission, by Daniel Meltzer, is a sweet, smart minidrama about a playwright and his first full-blown production. Nervous and unsure of himself, the Writer wants to rewrite lines, change motivations, etc., almost on the spot. The paternalistic Director tries to reassure him, but when he meets a handsome Young Woman whose reactions reflect his own, we realize the Writer is right and the Director is manipulative. Toma again directs with excellent timing, graceful movement and canny understanding of the humans behind the curtain; Schroader and Robynne Parris are particularly delightful as the Young Woman and the Writer.

Jeffrey Hatcher's Downtown is another neat, brief little morality play about three writers sitting in a chic disco observing with urbane disdain those they envy and emulate. Fine performances by Nils Ivan Swanson, Tim Brown and Bucy, as well as lively direction by Schroader, keep the action mad and amusing. Funny, cutting and sly as this playlet is, it's the punchline that makes it work.

Too bad the program doesn't end with that punchline, because John Guare's In Fireworks Lie Secret Codes is the most tedious portion of the evening. Guare also wrote the excellent Six Degrees of Separation--which just goes to show a guy can't be brilliant every day. Here five friends are watching fireworks from a terrace; eventually we learn that one of them is about to leave his lover to return to his native England, and the lover is crushed. But no insight is brought to the domestic tragedy, so we have no reason to care about the split. And since it takes what seems like a very, very long ten minutes to learn the point of the play, the viewer is more likely to be overtaken by ennui than by compassion.

Still, four winners out of six plays is a worthy percentage, and the entire cast and all three directors are talented, disciplined and energetic. Somehow a program of short plays seems appropriate for summer--they may rivet attention for a time, but they don't require too much endurance. If you don't like one, another will be up directly.

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