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Subversive Shorts sags under weighty subjects

Every year, progressive playwrights from around the United States send their scripts to Kurt Schneiderman, founder of the Subversive Theatre Collective, in hopes of being included in the company’s annual “Subversive Shorts” program.

The mini-festival of pint-sized plays, the first batch of which opened Thursday night in Subversive’s Manny Fried Playhouse, is spread across two evenings. In total, it contains 12 pieces on topics ranging from gun control and marriage equality to voter suppression and reproductive rights.

The first piece, Jeff Stolzer’s “Gun Shop,” features Paul McGuiness as a good-ol-boy owner of a firearms establishment and Connor Graham as his nervous customer. Stolzer paints McGuiness’ character with the broadest possible brush as an ignorant, homophobic conservative whose ideas about masculinity and gun ownership are meant to seem as loathsome as they are inextricable from one another. Its concept – to reveal the hypocrisy inherent in the political poses we adopt – is laudable, but falters in the execution.

“A Quick Stop at the Florist,” by California-based playwright Steven Korbar, is marginally more successful in exploring the nuances of the political positions we take up. It features Brianna Simmons as a flower shop owner and Erin Crowell as her customer. The two enter into a conversation, which soon enough erupts into an argument over marriage equality, latent bigotry and the comforts of religion to an oppressed minority. That’s a lot – too much, as it turns out – to fit into such a short space.

“Rubbas,” a clever political comedy featuring McGuiness as a Southern senator, London Lee as his assistant and Sara Jo Kukulka as the director of an aid group, takes on the political corruption, globalization and AIDS in Africa in one fell swoop. It does a very funny and convincing job of it, too, until it slaps us with a conclusion that feels rushed and dissatisfying.

Dwayne Yancy’s “A Women’s World Against a Machine,” starring Brendan Cunningham as a skeptical defense lawyer and Jessica Maria Stahr as his client, is a dystopian commentary on violence against women that gets its point across with admirable efficiency.

Along with Jeff Carter’s “Vote Here,” Yancy’s piece was one of the only ones whose structure, dialogue and subject seemed to coalesce and strike a lasting chord. Carter’s play, a look into a future voting booth, felt comical at first but soon took on Kafka-esque overtones that seemed all too plausible given recent attempts to suppress African-American and low-income voter turnout in last year’s presidential election.

While each show has its redeeming values, too many of them seemed to sag under the weight of their subject. Subversive might reconsider including so many plays on its shorts program in the interest of a better experience for the audience. Theatergoers might then reward the company with more visits if they did not have to wade through so many substandard or merely passable scripts before seeing an excellent one.

The second night of shorts includes “Cake Top This” by Buffalo playwright Donna Hoke, Rache Bublitz’s “My Body,” Rich Orloff’s “Mercury’s In Retrograde, and You Suck,” Chris Swanson’s “Lost in the Quagmire,” Paul Lewis’ “Oblivion” and Williame Coleman’s “Hit Me!”