Barrington Stage's "10x10 Plays" offers comfort food for the soul

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PITTSFIELD — It's no accident, I think, that this year's edition of "The 10x10 Plays" begins, and ends, with two plays about finding comfort, one set in a sandbox in a public park; the other, a desk fort in the office of a tech company on team training day as, one by one, a group of office workers decides that refuge and play are the only shelters against the crazy rules and demands of corporate life.

There has always been for me a sense of comfort about "The 10x10 Plays," a mixed assortment each year — this year is no exception— but the demands are light, the observations astute, if not always surprising and with just enough food for thought without upsetting the apple cart.

To be sure, politics can't help but rear its head in this smoothly moving evening — awkwardly and clumsily in Anne Marie Shea's "The Dirty Irish," in which, set against the background of the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, an elitist upper class couple, Howard and Grace Windsor (Douglas Rees and Peggy Pharr Wilson), rails against the intrusions of The Other — immigrants who are invading the country and who don't have the decency of speaking English.— and their disregard of the law while the Windsors themselves are not above using their wealth and status to, in the age of Prohibition, bring whiskey into their home. Far more poignant is "Raghead," in which a blind date between a New York fire fighter named Nick (Luke Gretzinger) and an aspiring brash actress named Sarah (Dina Thomas), both essentially decent people, turns into a social experiment with compelling consequences when Sarah shows up wearing a veil. The symbolism in Tom Coash's play — Sarah's veil poised against Nick's Yankees cap — gets a bit obvious but the characters, especially as played by Thomas and Gretzinger under Matthew Penn's direction, are achingly real as they, and we, are brought face to face with the hard, sad reality of our prejudices.

Political correctness is no friend to a veteran drill sergeant in "I Don't Know," James McLindon's piece in which the sergeant, played by Rees (who is a more-than-welcome addition to the BSC stage), finds that all the old crude drills don't square with the sensibilities of the recruits under his command.

"10x10" opens in a sandbox in public park, the quiet box, says its chief architect, Rick (Rees), who has made this box with a friend, Gabe (Matt Neely), as a way of retreating from the hurlyburly of the outside world, exemplified by the playground, with its "noisy" sandbox, nearby. It's not hard to figure out where all this is going when a mother (Dina Thomas),. whose child is playing nearby, takes umbrage at what she considers this intrusion but the journey is smart, whimsical and gentle.

In addition to "The Dirty Irish," Rees and Wilson inhabit the two strongest pieces of the evening — Susan Middaugh's "When I Fall in Love" and Marilyn Millstone's "Compos Mentis."

In the first, Wilson plays a woman named Florence who has come to visit her husband at a nursing facility for memory disorder patients. She has learned, to her poignant frustration, that he has taken up with another woman; the wife, it turns out, of an affable, accepting man named Ed (Rees), who has, over the three romantic relationships his wife has formed in the two years she's been living at the center, adopted a philosophical, realistic, accepting attitude that recognizes the opening of possibility even as it has disappeared elsewhere. Under Julianne Boyd's direction, Wilson and Rees find a nice, easy reassuring temperament here. Nice. Very nice.

Wilson and Rees are at a wonderfully whimsical, almost diabolical bent later on in "Compos Mentis" in which they play an elderly couple who, crazy like foxes, find a way to deal with their children's interest in having the couple move into a plush retirement community. The two are delightful as they double-team the community's administrator (Jane Pfitsch).

The company of six is adept and engaging; the direction by Boyd and Penn smooth and unassuming and sound designer Alexander Sovronsky has dipped into a rich trove of jazz, folk, gypsy jazz, classical music, a little Billy Joel to provide a jaunty, playful sound and music scape. All in all, not an unpleasant way to spend two hours on a chilly winter evening.


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