It’s 3:56AM in the Lower East Side. Why are you awake? 8 playwrights answer.
The Shelter bills itself as "a family of artists creating original theatre for the New York stage." Five years ago, a group of friends came together in a basement and formed a theater company, and to celebrate the fifth anniversary of their first production, the team of writers took on the theme that inspired that show once again: it's 3:56am on the Lower East Side. Who is awake, and why?
One Night on the Lower East Side
In the packed main room of The Bell House bar, where less than half of the bar was set up for seating and yet the entire house was packed with excited audience members, the players took to the stage. With no set beyond a few stools and music stands, the production is perhaps best considered a staged reading, but the enthusiasm and dedication of the performers made you forget about the low-key elements of the production almost instantly.
The evening began with a few songs by musical guest Adam Cohen--and then rapidly transformed when a woman played by Danielle Beckmann stormed out on stage to ask what he was doing playing on the stoop at this hour? It's almost 4am! And in that moment, we were all plunged into the world of the play, challenging the audience's perceptions of what the performance really was.
Cohen and Beckmann remained on stage throughout the series of short plays, their chemistry holding the series together as one united and engaging piece. As the two learned about one another, their lives, struggles and heartbreaks, the "Interludes" penned by Morgan McGuire grew less silly and more meaningful, keeping the audience interested in their overall story. Meanwhile, the pair's commentary on the other plays, from gossip about the women living upstairs to the earthquake that wakes up one neurotic resident, made it feel as though every scene presented could have been taking place in a single apartment building, which was a very nice touch.
Seven Wildly Different Pieces
"Love and Art" by Bob Kolsby begins with a cheesy, stereotypical premise--the play is itself about a writer who has to write a play about 3:56am on the Lower East Side--and rapidly devolves into something much more fascinating and intimate. The two women of the piece, the practical one and the dreamer, engage in a complex and clever commentary on love, art and what you live for, and the power of irreconcilable differences. Kelley Gates and Tricia Alexandro are brilliant in the play, of course.
"Lost Garden" by Michael Bernstein tells the story of a typical New York woman who picks her brother up from the bus station in the middle of the night, and immediately finds herself drawn back into the magical world of her youth. The entertaining convergence of today's New York references and a Shakespearean mode of speech familiar to any theatergoer had the audience laughing in seconds, provoking nostalgia and hilarity at once.
"A Shaky Situation" by Emily Cannon-Brown features Noelle Wilson as an immensely relatable and yet absurdly neurotic woman who wakes up convinced that there was just been an earthquake. Her interactions with her husband, played by Stephen Alan Wilson, provide a slice of everyday life that proves that ordinary situations can be just as theatrical as the extraordinary.
"Wolves Over Houston" by Jonathan Ashley is an empathetic look in on both the struggles of a young professor and children's nightmares, as a six-year-old and his father encounter one another in the middle of the night when neither should be awake. The moment at which the boy tells his father he wasn't in the dream to rescue the boy's mother because he was "probably at school" is heartbreaking, and Shaun O'Hagan and Ian Bell perform the piece with grace.
"Infected" by Dave Lankford features two men who work in cancer research, a scientist and a business development exec, and the sort of totally absurd reasoning that makes perfect sense at 3:56am. The enthusiastic, heightened stakes of the play are still completely believable, and if there's one thing that doesn't wait for a decent hour, it's cancer.
"Bewitching Hour" by Meghan E. Jones proves that even a show about children playing a game can touch on real issues of love and loss, and hits on all the sleepover cliches at the same time. I do wish we could have seen the actual seance on stage, though.
"Suicide Mission" by Ben Firke was perhaps the most innovative of all the 3:56am ideas. A woman who is about to commit suicide is interrupted by pounding at her front door and the most unlikely visitor she could imagine: a single Mormon missionary. This meeting of complete opposites is both hilarious and touching, as the two learn so much from each other and provide a sympathetic look at both suicide and Mormon missions. Emily Scott is the perfect tormented punk girl and Alex Carmine an adorable young missionary--and both are so much more than their stereotypes.
The seven (or eight, depending on how you're counting) plays were all completely different from one another despite being inspired by a single prompt, demonstrating the power of new theater in a single night of performances. 3:56AM Revisited was a wonderful celebration of all that The Shelter has accomplished, and we are very excited to see where they go from here. For more on the company, check out their website.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.