Don Bauder 6:30 p.m., Aug. 21
The Coffee Shop Chronicles at New Play Cafe
The set's authentic. That's because Coffee Shop Chronicles takes place at the Big Kitchen in South Park, where Judy "the Beauty on Duty" Forman has reigned benevolently for decades, and where San Diego's famous comediennes - Whoopi Goldberg, Kathy Najimy, Mo Gaffney, and others - worked to support their art (which I still think could make for a wonderful TV series).
Chronicles is a work-in-progress: a menu of short plays in a cafe setting, served with coffee, tea, and savory, vow-breaking desserts.
Like the Car Plays at La Jolla Playhouse, each one-act runs around 10 minutes. That's no time at all to introduce the situation, create characters and conflict, turn the piece into a surprising but artistically logical direction, and conclude. In 10 minutes. Badda, like, bing!
Since the actors are never more than eight or ten feet away from the audience, there's a premise inside the premise: if you could overhear conversations in a cafe, be a fly on the wall or whip cream melting on that to-die-for hot fudge sundae, what would they be about?
Not what you'd expect.
In Soroya Rowley's "Witch Cafe," Willow and Rhiannon sit silently. When they begin to talk, Willow can only move her mouth. Older sister Rhiannon cast a "body control spell" on her. One flick of the fingers, mummified. Can Willow, motion-deprived, turn the tables - er, table?
Kevin Six's very funny "Between Heaven and Hell" pits Josh (i.e. God) against Stan (short for Satan) in their ongoing contest about free will versus determinism ("the devil made me do it"). They bicker and fume, but aren't the only deities in the coffee shop.
Teresa Beckwith's "Message Send Failure": two women have a, rare these days, face-to-face chat, but do it in tech talk. And communicate. At least to each other.
Short plays are a great exercise for writers to discover the virtues of compression. Many of the scripts could use tightening; some more clarifying at the outset. And the talkier ones more urgency, more at stake.
The form's also a great workout for actors, since even nuances are on the clock. The nine-person cast does capable work, thanks to ace directors Kym Pappas and Carla Nell.
Nell also performs in the finale: Jonathan Hammond's whacko "Terminator 4." Nell plays Tammy, a waitress tired of patrons trying to skip the bill.
Enter two strangers - strange strangers - wearing shades and twitchy body language. They claim to be from the future, 2042, and seek the mother of the savior who will lead the rebellion against the "Cyborg Apocalypse." Or words to that effect.
John Connor? Nope. Different apocalypse, though "the future of humanity's at stake."
When she learns she's the next Linda Hamilton, Tammy, thinking they're just trying to get a free milkshake, asks, "how much would it suck to be Joan of Arc's mother?"
The Big Kitchen, 3003 Grape Street, South Park, playing through May 15. 619-663-4825.