- Greggory Moore
Every January, Little Fish Theatre rings in a new season by offering “Pick of the Vine,” a program of short plays. This is my third year sampling the harvest, and this is easily the best I’ve tasted, highlighted by strong notes of humor and feeling.
While previous years may have been weighed down by too much goofiness and too little variety, among the nine plays comprising this year’s Pick of the Vine are several that delve beneath the surface. The opener, David MacGregor’s Immersion Therapy, may not be one of them, but it’s a perfect kickoff to the evening. Every year Melissa (Rachel Levy) gets just what she wants for her birthday. But this year her husband (Daniel Gallai) gives her something she needs: immersion therapy to combat her coulrophobia. Unbeknownst to him, however, there’s an erotic side to Rachel’s fear that might make Freud blush. Contains excellent use of a rubber horn as a phallic symbol.
There’s not a lot to the second play, Glen Alterman’s Ditmas, which follows a chance meeting of a pair of former junior-high classmates, one of whom has had a sex change. There’s really nowhere for it to go after the big reveal, but its placement between the silliness of Immersion Therapy and the sentiment of Dagney Kerr’s Stay is a testament to the Pick of the Vine 2018’s perfect flow. Initially, though, there’s no guessing that Stay’s reunion of an aged German shepherd (Mary-Margaret Lewis) and a three-year-old poodle (Olivia Schlueter-Corey). But what starts out seeming like just another cutesy people-as-dogs skit becomes surprisingly affecting as the senior canine helps her young best friend gain new perspective on both the bitter and the sweet in our too-short time on Earth. You know it’s slightly mawkish, so you feel a bit silly that you’ve got tears in your eyes. Lewis, Schlueter-Corey, and director James Rice play the scenario just right.
George Sauer’s Most Popular, a fly-on-the-wall view of a panicky parlay between a pair of middle-aged high-school-reunion crashers who’ve been mistaken for Prom King and Queen, is probably the weakest of the bunch, but it works as a chance to collect yourself after Stay and set you up for J.C. Cifranic’s The Last Word, a Tarantino-inspired scene with a pair of hitmen (Gallai and Ryan Knight), one of whom can’t stand to go forward with the hit because their would-be victim (Perry Shields) won’t cough up some pithy last words. The ensuing argument is funny, but the payoff is even better, including a lighting cue that shows you can work magic with even the most rudimentary of rigs.
The perfect pacing continues after intermission with Mark Saunders’s The Case of the Missing Know-It-All. Although the title doesn’t make sense—no-one’s ever actually missing—in this is comedy of manners, in his retirement an insufferably arrogant Sherlock Holmes (drolly rendered by Shields) is driving his wife (Lewis) and two grown daughters (Levy and Schlueter-Corey) crazy, so crazy that there’s nothing to do but off him. Ah, but it’s not so easy to outsmart the paragon of deductive reasoning. Saunders’s satire of Arthur Conan Doyle is masterfully pitch-perfect—and, quite simply, funny.
Until its final twist, there isn’t much to Mario Rivas’s Flat Earther, which has us eavesdropping on Cassandra (Kimberly Patterson) and Martin’s (Knight) first date as they make fun of conspiracy theorists, a lark until it turns out that Cassandra believes that most mass shootings are “false flag” attacks. But she’s about to learn a hard lesson. Rivas probably telegraphs the ending, but it works well enough anyway.
In Mark Harvey Levine’s Wishes, a man (Gallai) is so addicted to his psychometric ability to divine the wish made on every coin he fishes out of a fountain that his girlfriend (Levy) is leaving him. This one is all about the conclusion, but if you’ve seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it’s going to seem overly derivative.
Nonetheless, as a final tribute to the night’s ideal flow, Wishes puts us in the right mood for Irene L. Pynn’s The Train, a wordless tale of boy (Knight) meets girl (Schlueter-Corey) in a noisy, crowded subway car. It’s not the most original idea (for the last few months Apple’s been running a long-form iPhone commercial that is at heart the same story), but director Holly Baker-Kresiwirth, with some solid sound cues, make it sing.
If you’ve attended a previous Pick of the Vine and enjoyed it, you’re sure to be delighted with what they’ve got for you this year. If this is the first you’re hearing of this Little Fish tradition and it sounds worth checking out, your timing is impeccable. There are definitely diamonds in the rough, and the rough is never so bad and always perfectly placed.
Pick of the Vine
Time: Fri-Sat 8 p.m., Sun 2 p.m., Runs through Feb. 17
Details: Littlefishtheatre.org, (310) 512-6030
Venue: 777 Centre St., San Pedro