|Jason Myatt and Janelle Mills meet cute in The T Plays.|
I was probably the first critic with a substantial audience to pay any attention to the T Plays, so ever since its premiere season I've kept track of this annual festival of local playwriting (produced by Mill 6 Collaborative) - and I've been happy to see it become something of an institution. But like most artistic institutions, it had of late begun to develop a few signs of sclerosis; indeed, the project's central gambit - that all its vignettes must be set on the eponymous T and also be written within 24 hours of a scheduled ride on it - all but encouraged a reliance on a handful of gimmicks that began to feel a little over-familiar over the years. In a pinch, it seemed, local playwrights often punched up their scripts with lost drag queens, rabid Red Sox fans, and, believe it or not, aquatic escapees from the Aquarium.
So I wasn't surprised to hear that this year's model (#5) had been announced as the "Last Call" for the series - but then was pleased to discover (at the closing performances) that the project's premise still had a surprising amount of kick left in it. In fact, I'd argue this was one of the best iterations of the T Plays yet - the scripts were a bit darker than usual (this year the writers were asked to ride the last train of the night, btw), but more importantly, they were also simply more consistently original.
Several were built around surprisingly edgy encounters, like the blackly comic face-off between "the Red Line ripper" and his copycat killer in Rick Park's "Last Train" (at top), or the bitter bickering between a mother and daughter - on their way home from an abortion - in Emily Kaye Lazzaro's broken-hearted "The Duck's Autoreply." Other scripts, like Lisa Burdick's "All the Way to Wonderland" and R.D. Murphy's "What Does a Princess Have to Do to Get Some Enchantment Around Here?" perhaps only amounted to floating exercises in surreal whimsy; but they did stay inventively afloat. Meanwhile T-Play perennial Patrick Gabridge offered (in "The Retriever") yet another of the thoughtful, tightly-structured character studies he seems able to engineer every year, and newcomer K. Alexa Mavromatis demonstrated that even familiar boy-meets-girl arcs can seem newly minted if treated with enough sensitivity and craft.
Although what was perhaps most striking this time 'round the T track was the consistent subtlety - across the entire roster of plays - of the acting and directing. Indeed, the casting alone was often remarkable; I've rarely felt quite so many actors (often virtual unknowns) were mysteriously right for their assigned roles. There were a few familiar faces on hand, of course - fringe stalwart Irene Daly made a poignant miracle of the conflicted mother in "The Duck's Autoreply," while Mal Malme once again proved her prowess at sweetly deadpan comedy. Jason Myatt likewise impressed as a creepily cheerful "Red Line Ripper" - although he may have been bested in Rick Park's demented little satire (probably the best script of the evening) by the talented Janelle Mills, whose spooky, bug-eyed punkette turned out to be concealing a soul far darker than even her wardrobe.
There were still more fine performances to savor, however, both from new faces Greer Rooney, Kevin La Velle, Jillian P. Couillard, Forrest Walter and Stephanie Yackovetsky, and known quantities Lonnie McAdoo and Bob Mussett. But perhaps the find of the evening was the delightful young Jacob Athyal, who delivered one of the most physically free and comically committed pieces of acting I've seen on a Boston stage in some time. We note that Mr. Athyal, Ms. Couillard and Ms. Yackovetsky are all students at Suffolk; methinks casting directors might want to begin scouting the student shows there. Or at the very least, they should check out next summer's sixth iteration of the T Plays.