"Power Plays" is the umbrella title for the Manhattan Theater Club's program of three one-act plays, now settling in for an off-Broadway run at the Promenade Theater. Don't be confused by the fact that the Promenade is actually on Broadway (at 76th Street). The technically correct, if geographically inexact designation of "Power Plays" as off Broadway, perfectly fits this sometimes uproarious production, which uses language to subvert reason, sanity and peace of mind.
The program returns Elaine May and Alan Arkin to the New York stage as writers and actors and, in the case of Arkin, also as director. Accompanying them to complete the four-member cast are Jeannie Berlin, May's daughter, and Anthony Arkin, the son of Alan. This is, however, something much more than a family affair. It's a theatrical event.While the delectable dizziness of "Power Plays" is a reason to celebrate, the program itself is a celebration of a U.S. theatrical tradition established in rather plain, unadorned physical circumstance on the South Side of Chicago in 1955. That was when David Shepherd and Paul Sills formed the Compass Players, the seminal improvisational theater near the campus of the University of Chicago. Though it did not last long, the Compass helped set the standard for much of the best U.S. comedy for the rest of the 20th century.
The Compass' guru was Viola Spolin, Sills' mother, who initiated the so-called "game workshops." These were designed to unlock actors' spontaneous behavior, in this way to facilitate the kind of improvisation and collaboration that made Nichols and May headline concert attractions by 1959 and, the following year, Broadway stars.
You might think that was a long time ago, but you wouldn't know it while watching May in "Power Plays," for which she wrote two of the three pieces. Almost anybody with a strong will can look great at any age. Yet she seems to have forced time to bend and then stop completely, as if they had arm-wrestled.
At one point, she gets down on the stage floor and does a furious set of push-ups.
There is far more to "Power Plays" than sexist sight gags, which now, as in the old days, have a way of ridiculing the befogged, impatient impotence of those who might be stimulated. Consider Arkin in his multiple roles as an actor of spooky intensity, as the production's elegant director and as the author of "Virtual Reality," the piece that most clearly identifies the program's Compass Players-Second City heritage.
Purists will quibble that the three plays in "Power Plays" are not really plays at all but sketches, which is to mistake their form with their content. They have the blithe manner of sketches, but they are as substantial as most of today's more clunky comedies that deal with such issues as the liberated woman, the nature of reality and pure unadulterated lust as a force as unpredictable and powerful as an out-of-control nuclear chain reaction. May's distinctive voice as both playwright and actress - reasonable, insistent, madly logical - can be heard throughout "The Way of All Fish," the two-character piece that opens the program, and "In and Out of the Light," the frequently riotous four-character farce that concludes the bill.