Craving a comedy? Then Series B in the Ensemble Studio Theatre’s annual one-act-play marathon may not slake your thirst. This impressive quintet of short works includes not a sip of effervescence. Quirky earnestness is the drink of the day. But it goes down well.

In Anniversary, by Rachel Bonds, a young single New York woman called Penelope mourns the death of a loved one. A comely blond man, given un-gooey charm by Jerry Richardson, takes an interest, but, like her Homeric namesake, Penelope puts off the suitor. Only when her mourning progresses – a process filled with off-centre emotions that may have worked better in a short story than in a short play – can she consider happiness.

Feelings are more dead-on in David Auburn’s Amateurs, a charged encounter between W, an angry young woman, and M, a politician. She accuses him of smearing her father 26 years earlier in an electoral campaign and threatens to expose an episode of his sexual harassment; he counters with painful revelations. David Rasche, who has vast experience in the work of David Mamet – the godfather of this kind of set-up – portrays M with halting rhythms. And with a priceless expression during an exit, Debbie Lee Jones as M’s secretary shows even small parts can be indelible.

Megan Tusing, as a 19-year-old American soldier parachuting into oblivion in Laura Jacqmin’s Airborne, proves that not just little parts but little plays – this is the briefest instalment in the EST bunch – can provide big opportunities. Delivering a monologue as she tumbles through space, Tusing gives a fierce, heartfelt performance.

Laura Maria Censabella’s Interviewing Miss Davis, the sole not-quite-coalesced entry, is brave in at least one respect: it eschews camp by allowing Bette Davis to be played, for once in the annals of off-Broadway, by a woman.

Jacquelyn Reingold’s They Float Up is the marathon’s most fully realised offering. A fortyish redhead named Joan, given gusto by Kellie Overbey, has abandoned her life in upstate New York to make it as a stripper in New Orleans. She enlists Darnell, a very fine William Jackson Harper, to aid her quest. My sole wish: that Reingold and her director, Michael Barakiva, had pared down the dialogue and allowed the actors’ mute expressiveness to do a little more of the work. () ensemblestudiotheatre.org

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