It's one of the great artistic paradoxes that artificial limits and formulas encourage creativity.
It's why some writers who fail at novels succeed with short stories, or poets who flounder with free verse shine when their language is compacted into quatrains. The principle is at play with the 27th annual version of "Buffalo Quickies," a compilation of pint-sized plays running through May 5 in the Alleyway Theatre.
This year's selection features seven plays, six of them by Western New York playwrights. The general tone of the evening is a kind of absurdist, Buffalo-focused humor that manifests itself in ways both dark and comforting.
The evening begins with Donna Hoke's sweet and strange "Spirit of Buffalo," an exaggerated Buffalo fable set during a snowstorm. Characters played by Jacquie Cherry and Andrew Zuccari are stranded in a snowstorm with only their conversation about the push and pull of the Queen City to keep them warm. Occasionally, a random Good Samaritan (Tom Dreitlein) appears out of the mist to deliver an assortment of increasingly elaborate Buffalo-related items, from Tim Hortons coffee to Loganberry martinis and beef on weck.
Next up is Matthew Boyle's "Lawn Wars," which inserts its environmental message into an overwritten argument between two neighbors (Zuccari and Christopher Standart) about their divergent approaches to lawn care. The actors' frenetic performances elevate the material, which could stand to be mowed down.
"The Offer," by Bella Poyton, finds Cherry as a former NASA astronaut called back to duty by her old boss (Standart). While the premise is interesting -- a decision about whether to accept a mission to Mars -- it's a bit too thin for the amount of dialogue Poynton has saddled it with.
The strongest piece of the evening comes with "Notice" by Peter Snoad, in which Kate Olena and Bill Lovern play a variety of characters debating the meaning of a T-shirt that says, simply, "WRITERS NOTICE." It's a clever, metatheatrical play on meaning and the way experience alters perception, all embedded within an absurdist, self-referential comedy.
Mike Randall, one of Buffalo's favorite weathermen, has written an amusing piece about a weatherman's internal debate over whether to quit or keep working for a station manager who increasingly treats him with disdain. (Should we read anything into this?) Standart plays the title character Johnny Stormcatcher against Bill Lovern's merciless boss, Olena's saucy news anchor and Cherry as a floor manager trying to convince him to go back on the air.
Michael Fanelli's "The Death of Melendez," featuring Standart and Lovern as die-hard baseball fans engaged in some sort of mystical ritual, is a curious reflection on the love of the game shot through with strange imagery. "When the Skeletons in Our Closets Choke on Candy Corn," featuring a wonderful performance from Zuccari as a 30-year-old struggling to stay connected to his youth, gets lost in its own grandiosity about halfway through.
"Kick Your Heels Up and Shout," by J. Snodgrass, which won the 2017 Mazumdar New Play Competition, tells the unlikely story of a deeply Catholic Buffalo Bills fan, his put-upon wife (Olena) and his Wiccan daughter, who conspire (spoiler alert) to bring about the death of the Miami Dolphins quarterback through black magic. It has a touch of "Buffalo '66," a touch of "Major League" and more than a touch of charm.
While the quality of the plays is uneven, which is part of the fun, the performances are universally engaging . Zuccari, a fresh and welcome face on Buffalo's theater scene, is especially appealing in a variety of comic roles.
The evening clocks in at less than two hours, with more than enough variety and talent to entertain even the most skeptical theatergoer. The amount of local talent on display, both onstage and off, is well worth the price of admission.
3 stars (out of four)
Runs through May 5 in Alleyway Theatre, 1 Curtain Up Alley. Tickets are $16 to $32. Call 852-2600 or visit alleyway.com.