by Michael Bowen

In its 21st year, the two-evening Playwrights Forum Festival of new one-act plays is, as usual, a mixed bag. Over two evenings at the Spokane Civic's Studio Theater, you can catch some overly broad satire, some one-note plays and at least one more sophisticated attempt at showing how everyone's time-crunch has made us all etiquette-challenged.

In "Bookstore," playwright Stephen Pence of Stone Mountain, Ga., wants to skewer our national obsession with guns and murder and snooping on one another's business. People everywhere are dropping dead in mysterious circumstances, you see, and somehow it's all linked to a popular new book.

As the bookstore clerk, Jackie Davis overdoes the perkiness that served her so well as the sidekick in the Studio's recent production of Lysistrata. Ann Selco overplays the hauteur of the customer who's outraged over what it takes just to get a peek at this new book everyone's talking about. As a result, the potential for serious statement dwindles into a cartoon. Granted, it's an absurd premise -- an epidemic of murder, all because of a how-to bestseller -- but Pence is attuned to how at gun shows and certain overly detailed Web sites, we might as well be selling licenses to kill. (A few swipes at the Patriot Act come off as merely out of place.) Both script and performance could have aimed at sharp satire but settled instead for low comedy.

Post Falls playwright Daniel Edmiston has written the festival's most sophisticated and best entry, "Touch Tones." It's a satire on how, because we're more eager to take a call than truly connect with the person right next to us, we've become frazzled and downright rude members of Cell Phone Nation. A barista (Sandy Browning, with an engaging mix of shyness and self-assertion) tentatively attempts to connect with a well-meaning but preoccupied TV anchor (Greg Nagy) even as a couple of obnoxious real estate agents (Steve Whitehead, brash, and Evelyn Renshaw, abashed) shout orders and close deals. Edmiston tries to interlace and counterpoint dialogue in ways that were beyond the timing of an opening-night cast, but he skewers our self-importance -- I talk loudly, ergo I am important -- and even provides moments of improvised heroism (for Nagy's TV guy) and premeditated anger-venting (for Browning's "coffee girl"). "Touch Tones" can be too preachy in decrying Yuppie Scum attitudes, but it's still a victory for the wise but underemployed schlubb inside all of us.

The third play in the first group of plays is "Work & amp; Play" by Michael E. Wolfson of North Hollywood, Calif. It's a pickup scene with a twist: Gruff company man Paul Spencer is just trying to complete a little paperwork -- in a noisy and dimly lit bar on a Friday night, right? -- when sassy Kate Houston saunters up and starts hitting on him: "Mind sharing your nuts?" Spencer seems to overemphasize his character's irritability, and Houston looks more like a librarian than a femme fatale -- but given the surprise twist, those choices turn out to be strengths rather than weaknesses. It's a one-idea script, though: Once you know whodunnit and why they're going to be doing it, "Work & amp; Play" turns to be satisfying but underwhelming.

"The Ghost in High Heels," by Houston's Carl L. Williams, combines three styles (ghost story, detective yarn, skit comedy); it's a couple of genres too many. A newlywed couple settle into a supposedly haunted beachfront house, and guess who's coming to dinner? Nancy Gasper gives a flamboyant performance -- is she a ghost, or isn't she? -- come back to do a little detective-style snooping. (The explanation of why this particular ghost is so, well, fleshy, is clever.)

Williams wants to investigate belief and unbelief in the spirit world, along with a theme of reconciliation. But he also jokes it up -- the ghost jumps up on the couch, the hosts get tipsy and, as with many plays that try to mix tones, the results are inconsistent. As the pizza delivery boy, Jack Barnes goes with on-the-nose doofus choices, and "Ghost" -- as with "Bookstore" -- settles for broad comedy when it might have accomplished more.

If Socrates were alive today, we'd have to kill him: That seems to be the thrust of "The Death of Socrates in America" by Seattle's Thomas Pierce. After all, the Greeks served him hemlock -- and what with our compulsive marketing schemes, celebrity cults and feel-good news, we don't want gadflies any in our gazpacho, either.

Homer Mason, an octogenarian in real life, makes a swell curmudgeon, pointing out that Socrates himself probably had a "semen-stained toga" in his closet. But either Pierce or director Maynard Villers lets the tension lag by seating two actors (Mason and Brad Picard) and keeping them that way for the duration. Further, there's an imbalance: No one's asking for a boring history lecture, but why, among all the anti-contemporary America satire, isn't there any room for what made Socrates so great in the first place?

But when it comes to ghosts and ancient philosophers, your mileage and opinions may vary. Book club members spend hours reading and discussing long novels, so why not spare two hour-long evenings watching, discussing and then voting on five short new plays? The Playwrights Forum is like an instant book club in a theater.

Publication date: 06/17/04

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.