Playwrights’ Center

“Five Tiny Points of Light” is a collection of five brief sketches developed through improvisation in the Playwrights’ Center’s Germ Workshop. According to the program, each sketch began with “nothing more than the playwright’s ‘germ’ of an idea.” The playwright then worked with actors trained in improvisation and guided them toward “the development of the final product.”

Now, improvisation can be a tremendous spur to the imagination of performers. Working with a simple premise–a shy man trying to strike up a conversation with a mysterious woman, for example–actors can make astute observations about human nature. They can also end up spouting every dumb thing that comes into their heads.

This program offers a little of each. Fragments From the Permanent Collection, by Michael Brayndick, is based on the above-mentioned premise–a man trying to strike up a conversation with a woman. The man, played by Yakov Neiditch, is smitten with a young woman, played by Kori Koerner, who sits in front of the same painting at the Art Institute every day at lunch hour. Admiring her from afar, he imagines her to be utterly confident and tranquil. Her face “seems to absorb the light from the face of everyone who walks by her,” he says. “I know I should stay away, but each day the pull grows stronger.”

His references to light and gravity make sense–he is an astronomer from Northwestern, accustomed to spending his nights gazing at the infinite reaches of the universe. When his attraction to her finally overcomes his fear, he approaches her, startling her with an aggressive “Hi!” She allows him to sit next to her, but grows wary when he explains he has been watching her for days. He even confesses to eating a kernel of popcorn she’d dropped on the bench. “I hope you don’t mind,” he says. “Why should I?” she answers coolly. “I feed the pigeons too.”

Their conversation is interrupted several times with snatches of dialogue from couples (all played by Bill Taylor and Cassy Harlo) strolling through the museum–young parents out alone for the first time since their baby was born, two students skipping a French class, a distraught woman and the ghost of her dead husband. These conversations suggest potential outcomes of the budding romance at the center of the piece, providing an impressionistic look at the subject the playwright has chosen.

Another promising piece, A to the N, is also about a conversation between two strangers. An older man named Bum (Andrew Sten, who also wrote this piece) invites a nervous young lawyer named Mike (Greg Rothman) to contemplate a seemingly simple mathematical formula that has nonetheless stumped mathematicians. Although the bit doesn’t get very far, and has an extra ending that should be dropped, Sten has at least succeeded, in this, his first attempt at play writing, in creating a couple of engaging characters.

Unfortunately, the rest of the program consists of pointless, rambling pieces that look like dashed-off writing exercises.

Sanctuary, by Chris Maul, is about three women, played by Cassy Harlo, Christiana King, and Tucker Brown, who are confined to a mental institution. One by one the women are interviewed by a smug, unresponsive psychiatrist; then they mysteriously disappear. The press release bills this as “a look at schizophrenic paranoia in a post-feminist society,” but that’s an awfully fancy description for such a small, ineffective piece.

Omega, by Jim MacDowell, is a feeble attempt at science fiction in which a man (Barry Allen) worships a computer named Omega as his god, while a woman (Cherie Samuel), apparently awakened after many years, tries to challenge his faith.

And The New Mythology, by Jessica Salis, is an incoherent attempt at political satire. In it, a rock star (Bill Taylor) with political ambitions tries to persuade the American public to support a bomb large enough to destroy the dinosaur that he claims is growing at the center of the earth. Without the bomb, he says, the monster will destroy the planet. But a 17-year-old high school student (Christiana King) starts a “save the dragon” campaign, and defeats this wacky proposal.

As I said, improvisation dredges up a lot of sludge along with its few precious nuggets.