The 900-sec­ond play’s the thing

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Fif­teen min­utes feels like an eter­nity when one is wait­ing for a bus on a cold day, put on hold, or try­ing to fall asleep. But in the world of the the­ater, a quar­ter of an hour of­ten isn’t enough time to de­velop a full scene. How­ever, for the one-act works in the Bench­warm­ers se­ries, a com­plete play must un­fold in the space of that time— with char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment, drama, action, and all. The Santa Fe Play­house presents the ninth in­car­na­tion of the se­ries, a show­case for the work of lo­cal play­wrights.

Bench­warm­ers, said Play­house board mem­ber Dan Ger­rity, “is about the writer, al­ways, and each writer has a unique and dis­tinc­tive voice.” Ger­rity, along with the rest of the Play­house board, read their way through more than 60 sub­mis­sions in or­der to nar­row the per­for­mance down to eight plays. “The selections re­flect the con­sen­sus of the read­ing com­mit­tee,” Ger­rity said. “We choose based on a knowl­edge of the Play­house au­di­ence and what we think is re­ally the­atri­cal.” And be­cause the read­ing process is blind— the read­ers didn’t know whose work they were read­ing— vet­eran writ­ers and new­bies had an equal shot at see­ing their plays on­stage.

Be­sides the time limit, each play must use a bench as its main set, though a small prop or two is per­fectly ac­cept­able. For Charles Tichenor, whose play Jerry, Kyle, and the Big Pa­rade was his first en­try sub­mit­ted for con­sid­er­a­tion in the pro­gram, it helped to be given some struc­ture. “Some­times I don’t have an idea for a story, just a char­ac­ter,” Tichenor said. “But the bench was a great build­ing block.” In his piece, Tichenor uses the bench as a place for two men with very dif­fer­ent views to dis­cuss the big-city gay-pride pa­rade that passes in front of them. Theirs isn’t one of those right-view-ver­sus-wrong-view ar­gu­ments, though. Jerry and Kyle make valid points about the flam­boy­ance of the un­seen (to the au­di­ence) pa­rade. In fact, it’s this con­trast of opin­ion that makes the script so dy­namic. “Some­times,” Tichenor said,” we get so caught up in po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness that we be­come judg­men­tal”— some­thing both char­ac­ters slip into through­out the piece.

While Tichenor’s play speaks to po­lit­i­cal stereotypes and per­cep­tions, Gary Dontzig’s Dog Story turns typ­i­cal the­ater on its head. Of the four char­ac­ters, two are hu­man and two— the more dy­namic and funny two— are dogs. The Emmy Award-winning Dontzig, who wrote for TV’s Sud­denly Su­san and Mur­phy Brown and cowrote the pi­lot for Han­nah Mon­tana, ques­tioned his own in­spi­ra­tion. “When I wrote for tele­vi­sion, the sto­ries came out of my life; full-length pieces come from in­side. Th­ese 15-minute plays, I don’t know where they come from.”

Wher­ever it came from, Dog Story is fun. Ger­rity, who di­rects the piece, de­scribed it as “a nice jux­ta­po­si­tion be­tween two char­ac­ters [the dogs] who live in the now with two peo­ple who have so much bag­gage.” The dogs have the ad­van­tage of be­ing able to hear and re­act to the con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the dog own­ers, while the hu­mans can only re­act to the action of the an­i­mals. And though the an­i­mals’ im­me­di­ate con­cern is the present, they have a larger grasp on the world.

Some­times, though, it’s mys­tery that sets the­ater­go­ers on the edge of their seats. For Claire and Ricky, the char­ac­ters in K.L. Huer­tas’ two-han­der The Passed Pawn, the con­nec­tion be­tween them be­comes ob­vi­ous to the au­di­ence be­fore it does to the char­ac­ters, cre­at­ing ten­sion that floats off the stage. Claire, in cri­sis be­cause of her hus­band’s hos­pi­tal­iza­tion, meets Ricky, an odd young man who serves as her con­fi­dant and pro­vides a con­nec­tion to her hus­band. Be­cause of Ricky’s men­tal dis­or­der, which is re­vealed through his stilted speech, he of­fers an emo­tion­ally de­tached in­ti­macy that al­lows Claire to con­cen­trate on her sor­rows and to ap­pre­ci­ate the idio­syn­cra­sies of life. “[Ricky] sel­dom asks ques­tions,” Huer­tas said, “he sim­ply states things.” This al­lows him to bring Claire into the present and away from her pain. “I liked the idea of them talk­ing about the here and now,” Huer­tas said, and it is this choice that pre­vents the play from be­com­ing sappy.

Bench­warm­ers also in­cludes Thomas Wood­ward’s far­ci­cal look at beauty pageants, And the Win­ner Is ..., which tweaks the beau­tyqueen stereo­type like it’s twirling a fiery ba­ton. Bob­bie, a beauty queen, is a sub­ver­sive ad­vo­cate for “ev­ery plain and not-so-ter­rific looking woman out there.” The fic­tional Ms. Amer­ica pageant has a fa­mil­iar­ity of place and time that Su­san Ap­ker’s Le Fou, set in 1940s Paris, does not. In that piece, two cabaret singers trade barbs — and songs— as they com­pete to de­cide who will be the most re­mem­bered.

Af­ter the cur­tain closes on Bench­warm­ers 9, the­ater­go­ers get an­other week­end of per­for­mances. At 8 p.m. Feb. 27 and 2 p.m. Feb. 28, seven honor­able men­tions take over Santa Fe Play­house for staged read­ings.

Ju­dith Jones-Arute, left, and Pal Dy­bel in And the Win­ner Is... by Thomas Wood­ward Top, Tad Jones as Mau­rice Che­va­lier in Su­san Ap­ker’s Le Fou

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