Audiences flock to see the 24 Hour Plays on Broadway (a fundraising benefit for Urban Arts Partnership) for the same reason people watch NASCAR: the hope of a disaster. “No, there will be no art here tonight,” declares 24 Hour Plays veteran Billy Crudup in the first of six productions. “But you know what can happen in the blink of an eye? A train-wreck.”
Just the evening before, on the upper floor of the American Airlines Theater, a throng of celebrity actors, writers, and stage directors met to brainstorm. The 2011 crew — Jesse Eisenberg, Sarah Silverman, John Krasinski, Megan Fox, Gabourey Sidibe, Rachel Dratch, Paul Bettany, and Tracy Morgan, among others–were given one full day to script, stage, rehearse, and produce a short play. With such eminent reputations and so little time, there is imminent risk.
The running joke through the plays is the inanity of producing theater in a matter of hours. Set in a green room, the first play’s Crudup instructs Jason Biggs (“American Pie”), sporting a glittering blonde wig and sapphire negligee, to anesthetize: drink the gift bag, champagne, vodka, even the body lotion for its 12% alcohol content. Biggs obediently squirts the contents down the hatch.
Mostly, writers banked on the the silliness of dressing actors in costumes. Enter David Cross as a Foxy Brown-obsessed dancer, gyrating incessantly in an unwrapped wrap-dress and gold sequin shorts. The writers and directors clutched at comedy as a life raft: buoyant and light, forgiving of crack-ups, ridiculous transitions and casual cameos from Tracy Morgan as an easy punch line. Jack McBrayer pranced about in a French maid’s costume trying to sweep up gangster dust bunnies Sarah Silverman and Megan Fox.
In this way, the scripts were earnestly safe, implausible and inane. One play, by David Lindsay-Abaire, stood out among the others. Its premise (similar to Chuck Palahniuk’s short story “Cold Calling”) envisioned hell as a telemarketer phone bank, with John Krasinski as a middle manager.
Despite the in-jokes about the difficulty of the task at hand, the six productions were smooth. This marks the 10th Anniversary of the 24 Hour Plays on Broadway and many of the actors, writers, and directors are long-time veterans. They know what works. The evening of controlled chaos accrued more than $400,000 for Urban Arts Partnership, funds that will brings arts to underserved students in the New York Public Schools. But the chaos was a little too controlled. What was lacking was the risk of failure, the edge of disaster, and the actual absurd.