Evening of short plays delights

Throughout the year, artistic director James A. Kleinmann’s PlayGround helps selected local writers develop new works, eventually showcasing the best of the resulting short-shorts on a single bill. Those on offer in this 11th annual festival — all written in response to eclectic assigned topics — are a mixed bag but comprise a delightful evening.

Two of my three favorites are historically based. One is Richard Weingart’s “Isle of Dogs, Part II,” directed by Molly Noble, a witty two-hander in which Will (Shakespeare) and Ben (Jonson) meet over a pint at the local tavern. Will admits pandering to lowbrow audiences but advises elitist Jonson to go for more popular appeal. Jonson, for his part, encourages the Bard to be truer to his artistic muse.

Evelyn Jean Pine’s “Investing” is a tightly structured, impressively original piece, a fascinating battle of wills between Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, arguing over financing Christopher Columbus’ exploration. Cleverly directed by Elizabeth Williamson, it offers a startling (to me, anyway) theory connecting the Columbus expedition to the Spanish Inquisition.

And I savored Molly Rhodes’ delicate “Man Plus Woman Equals . . .,” directed by Jessica Heidt. A professor, at his desk, conjures a fleeting flirtation between his wife and another man at a party; while he describes it, we see it. As in the best type of modern short-short story, Rhodes infuses the elusive scenario with a touching poignancy.

Of the four others, two are set in a prison: Daniel Heath’s somewhat contrived “Seagull,” directed by Kleinmann, in which an unusual prisoner finds a way to soothe his violence-prone cellmate; and Martha Soukup’s “The Nurse’s Tale,” directed by Barbara Oliver, essentially a confessional monologue by an incarcerated woman, delivered to a priest, but somehow lacking a core of authenticity. Tim Bauer’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” directed by Mark Routhier, is a slight but amusing satire of the frustrations of airport security.

And PlayGround veteran Aaron Loeb (whose brilliant “First Person Shooter” is now at SF Playhouse) contributes the domestic drama “Unpleasantries,” directed by Lee Sankowich. Clearly inspired by Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” it is unfortunately closer to a soap opera.

It’s a shock when only five actors appear for the curtain call after the seventh play; they all do such fine work, you expect a bigger lineup.

The Best of PlayGround Festival ***

Presented by PlayGround

Where: Zeum Theatre, 221 4th St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $30 to $40

Contact: (415) 704-3177 or www.PlayGround-sf.org

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