“Buggy & Tyler,” the comic sketch that opens “The Car Plays,” Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s triptypch of automobile-themed one-acts at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, is not destined for long-term parking in the canon of theatrical classics.
Newly penned by Taffety Punk’s resident dramatist Gwydion Suilebhan, it’s a lightweight piece about two road-tripping college buddies — and its best line, by an odometer-certified mile, is “Do you think maybe I ran over a marmot?” Still, as that question might indicate, “Buggy & Tyler” is lightweight in a pleasantly kooky way. It gives an energetic launch to “The Car Plays,” a high-concept — but intermittently stalling — production that also showcases Briandaniel Oglesby’s “Nebraska by Noon” and Thomas Michael Campbell’s “dREAMtRIPPIN’,” both previously produced elsewhere.
A Taffety Punk news release on “The Car Plays” says that the typical American spends more than 80 minutes a day in a two-axle conveyance. Moving from statistics to dramaturgy, the release suggests that the enclosed space of an automobile is inherently just the kind of pressure-cooker environment likely to provoke spotlight-worthy conflict. (This is not a new idea: Other theatrical entities, including Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays, have staged similar dramas in actual cars.)
Suilebhan does rev up a goofy clash of wills in “Buggy & Tyler,” whose eponymous characters he has featured in previous work. In this script, directed by Joel David Santner, the scruffy, laid-back Buggy (a slightly slapdash Eric M. Messner) and the nerdy, uptight Tyler (the amusing Jason Lott) are bickering their way back to college from the annual Burning Man celebration. Suilebhan’s banter can be fun; Lott’s shocked expressions are quite entertaining; and a key plot twist proves courageously eccentric.
Motoring the vehicle motif down a far darker highway, “Nebraska by Noon” — directed by Sonya Robbins — chronicles a tortuous interstate drive by a family in crisis. The harried Sheila (an able Sheila Hennessey) has learned how to do police-style searches of her violent 14-year-old son, Nate (Alex Vaughan) — but controlling a kid is harder when you’re doing 65 on the highway. Vaughan is splendidly sullen as Nate, and young performer Sylvie Ashford is terrific as Nate’s little sister, Miri. But as the play heads toward its admittedly heart-wrenching denouement, it provides an overly generous sampling of the tense, boring, claustrophobic moments we all know too well from our own car trips.
“DREAMtRIPPIN’, ” directed by Kelsey Mesa, dives into the car-lulled dreams of two colleagues driving to a professional conference in Middle America. Has the mild-mannered Karen (a compelling Esther Williamson) declared her love for the obnoxious — or maybe just moody — Steven (the spot-on Mark Krawczyk)? Or was the incident just overactive R.E.M. activity? Playwright Campbell’s “gotcha”-style tricks with dream narratives quickly become tedious.
Given the spatial setup of the average gas guzzler, “The Car Plays” were bound to have a visually static quality — lots of tableaux of people sitting in chairs, with one character’s hands poised on an invisible steering wheel. But the directors have come up with a few clever ways to suggest movement (mostly involving stage hands); the sound design by Josh Taylor and Marcus Kyd supplies sirens, insects droning at rest stops and other evocative noises; and Chris Curtis’s stylized lighting helps clarify the oneiric world of “dREAMtRIPPIN’.” All in all, “The Car Plays” is not a memorable production, but it beats sitting in traffic on Leesburg Pike.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Three one-act plays: “Buggy & Tyler” by Gwydion Suilebhan, directed by Joel David Santner; assistant director, Chris Curtis. “Nebraska by Noon” by Briandaniel Oglesby, directed by Sonya Robbins. “DREAMtRIPPIN’ ” by Thomas Michael Campbell, directed by Kelsey Mesa. Costumes, Sarah Kendrick; choreography, Micheline Heal; fights, Paul Gallagher. About two hours. Through Saturday at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 Seventh St. SE. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.taffetypunk.com.