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Marathon goes the distance

It's not every day you get to take in 50 companies mounting 50 plays -- three-quarters of them world premieres -- at the bargain-basement rate of $3 an hour. Actually, the opportunity comes but once a year, when Boston Playwrights' Theatre, led by artistic director Kate Snodgrass, mounts the Boston Theater Marathon, a charity event. Sunday's performance benefited the Community Benevolent Fund overseen by StageSource, which aids theater artists in crisis.

The festival -- something of a homegrown Woodstock for Boston's theater community -- made a leap this year in transferring to Boston University's spiffy new Wimberly Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, whose capacity is twice that of Boston Playwrights' Theatre's scruffy black boxes. But any concerns that the marathon might be getting too slick were quickly assuaged. The production was polished in the best sense, with 49 scene changes (overseen by a volunteer crew) proceeding like clockwork. For the audience, the experience was one of nearly unalloyed delight.

Once again, the actors proved themselves up to -- and often superior to -- the demands made upon them by 10-minute works of widely divergent quality. (Volunteer readers had culled the scripts from 300 blind submissions made by New England-based playwrights.) A cultural Einstein could have had a field day here exploring theories of dramatic relativity.

Some of the plays seemed to last a full two hours, while the best sped by in a brilliant flash. And certain patterns emerged from the mishmash: The format works best with two to four characters, tops (this isn't DeMille time), and favors comedy over drama (race to wrest deep emotion, and the result is instant bathos).

Still, the standouts included several rule-breakers. On the tragedy front, Nicole Alba enlivened Candace Perry's ''Sorry" (mounted by the Wheelock Family Theatre) by playing the specter of a slain young GI as an arrested adolescent, still ticked off at her mother (Jane Staab) for not ''getting" her. And Debra Wise and John Kuntz were touching in Molly Smith Metzler's ''Decoding Fruit" (Underground Railway Theater), about a responsible older sister dealing with a sibling off his meds.

Kuntz is great at playing maniacs, and his monologue ''Kix" (sponsored by the Nora Theatre Company), about a housewife obsessed with cereal boxes, crackled and popped.

Several small, sly character studies were cleverly written and astutely performed. In the Rough and Tumble Theatre Company's ''Mondays and Other Days" (excerpted from its 2004 play ''I'm away from my desk right now . . ."), George Saulnier III did a wonderful slow burn as a cubicle mate nearly driven mad by a co-worker's narcissistic nattering.

Robert Pemberton, as a loutish celebrity, and Bill Mootos, as his seething assistant, engaged in a war of wills in Andrew Clarke's ''Breakfast With Harvey" (Centastage). In Dan Blask's ''Lean Love City" (Provincetown Theatre Company), Richard Arum played a bumbling straight guy, recently ditched, who gamely tried to play counselor to a pair of estranged gay lovers. Michael Grady's ''Eralset or Scrabble in Babel" (TheatreZone) was set on a desert island, and with no dictionaries for checking word challenges, Michael McKeogh and Stephen Libby devolved into comic gibberish.

Some scripts were gimmicky, but fun. In Peter Shelburne's ''Gus Penelope Syberson" (Theatre Cooperative), for example, Deanna Dunmeyer was a revelation as a GPS brain implant not content with issuing driving directions.

Meta-references proliferated in Jack Neary's ''The Rewrite" (New Century Theatre), in which a tough old bird (Ellen Colton) hijacked her own eulogy: ''Another dead grandmother play!" Before a critique of the ''Leo Buscaglia Memorial Institute for Petrified Dialogue," she advised: ''Nine minutes to go -- hang in there."

With treats like this one, we'd be foolish not to.

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