ACT Theatre’s “An Evening of One Acts” brings together three short plays from three American icons — Steve Martin, Woody Allen and Sam Shepard — and that’s mostly where the connective tissue ends, in this oddly conceived but highly enjoyable spread of theater. One ostensibly gets three times the entertainment for the price of a single ticket, but all plays aren’t created equally, even if they’re all written by comic geniuses.
Fortunately, director R. Hamilton Wright saves the best for last with Shepard’s 1969 work “The Unseen Hand,” a gleefully absurd Western/sci-fi amalgam that features a mind-controlled humanoid from another galaxy, a 120-year-old cowboy and his long-dead brothers brought back to life.
Unlike the other names on the bill, Shepard isn’t generally thought of as a comedic voice, what with his potent portraits of isolation and disillusionment in plays like “Buried Child” and films like “Paris, Texas.” But in “The Unseen Hand,” Shepard leavens his signature concerns with a spiky sense of surrealism that slyly undercuts the self-mythologized American conception of a hero.
Eric Ray Anderson is jovially gruff as Blue Morphan, a onetime train robber who’s settled into retirement living in a rusted-out roadster on the side of an Azusa, Calif., highway. His rest is interrupted by Willie (Hana Lass, delightfully unhinged), a bald primate from the planet Nogo with a giant black handprint burned into his skull.
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Willie is seeking help to free his enslaved people, and he resurrects Blue’s brothers, Cisco and Sycamore (a rip-roaring David Foubert and a perpetually irritated Chris Ensweiler) to contribute to the freedom fighting.
The combination of two of America’s most popular genres gives Shepard a vehicle to express his skepticism of so-called traditional values, a point he underlines hilariously with the appearance of a rage-filled high schooler (Quinn Armstrong) who mistakes the men for subversives and launches into an irate missive about his love for football games, the Kiwanis, the Presbyterian church and a litany of other good ol’ wholesome American institutions.
“The Unseen Hand” is a true original, and it anchors the evening, which would feel remarkably inconsequential without its presence.
The show opens with Martin’s “Patter for the Floating Lady,” a genial 20-minute appetizer in which a magician (Foubert) exorcises his romantic disappointment by attempting to levitate his ex-girlfriend (Jessica Skerritt). Foubert nails the Martin-esque oblivious puffery while Skerritt is perfect as his peeved foil.
“Riverside Drive,” from 2003, is, like a lot of recent Allen, an only occasionally amusing rehash of familiar ideas. Here, Allen offers a more overtly comic riff on the Dostoyevskyian themes of “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” as a screenwriter (Ensweiler) tries to extricate himself from an extramarital affair, with plenty of unsolicited advice from a homeless guy (Anderson). Ensweiler is the ideal Allen surrogate among Seattle actors, but his neuroticism gets swallowed up in Allen’s atypically broad comedy.
The trio of disparate plays allows scenic designer Martin Christoffel, costume designer Melanie Burgess and lighting designer Rick Paulsen to really flex their creative muscles, culminating in one of the best-looking shows of the year with the dilapidated and deserted locale, futuristic and archaic threads and fading twilight of “The Unseen Hand.”
Dusty Somers: firstname.lastname@example.org