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Theater Marathon's 10-minute works are packed with pleasures

For 10 magical hours every spring, Boston's theater community pulls together like one giant ensemble in the Boston Theater Marathon to bolster the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund. The event benefits everyone involved: the theater professionals in need whom the fund helps (last year's event raised $10,324.10), playwrights who can try out new work on a game audience, and spectators, who for $30 get a glimpse of all sorts of up-and-coming talent, both on the page and onstage.

Sunday's lineup at the Boston Center for the Arts' Calderwood Pavilion -- 50 10-minute scripts, culled from a pool of 330 -- was packed with pleasures. This short form is demanding: How do you cram exposition, character development, and dramatic arc into the space of a couple of TV commercial breaks? Most of the playwrights managed, some with astonishing panache.

In this context, comedy tends to be easy, tragedy hard. Pathos, after all, must be earned, and when the clock is ticking, the effort can seem forced. K. Alexa Mavromatis's ``Bone China," for example, sponsored by the Actors' Shakespeare Project, features two adult sisters poring over the attic detritus of their dead mother, a daunting premise. But wait, one of the women is also the mother of a 2-year-old, and won't be for long because she has cancer. Despite the best efforts of Devon Jencks (as the afflicted sibling) and Caryn Andrea Lindsey, that's way too much front-loading.

Jami Brandli's ``Normal," produced by Alarm Clock Theatre Company, strikes just the right balance. Bobby Jr. -- Joey Del Ponte, the event's only child performer, and a natural -- is up a tree, refusing to come down unless his father (Kevin LaVelle) lets him wear his favored costume: an assortment of colorful scarves. What they stand for is revealed gradually, to deeply touching effect.

Several plays benefit from rabbit-out-of-the-hat denouements, but none more than Vanessa David's ``Early Dismissal" (Nora Theatre Company), in which two women (Stephanie Clayman and Faith Justice) commiserate about the insufficiencies of daycare. ``MOMologues" redux, you think, but no, and you're forced to recalibrate all your assumptions.

Many comic skits worked like charms. Petite Ariel Francoeur feistily filled out the title role of Jason Wilkins's ``Kickass Librarian" (Portland Stage Company): The clever script brings new meaning to the term ``body language." Valerie Madden brought an impressive physicality to David Rabinow's ``Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman" (Shadow Boxing Theatre Workshop), about a liberal rendered mutant by the outrages of the Bush administration. In Ted Reinstein's ``Fine!" (Lyric Stage), Barlow Adamson shone as a gay Jewish-Hispanic pol bristling at the dictates of his image consultant (Sean McGuirk) and trying to come up with a signature gesture.

Richard Snee's ``Black Irish" (New Repertory Theatre) takes as its premise a job interview in which a diversity-happy human resources director (Snee's real-life wife, Paula Plum) obliviously welcomes Snee into the fold as a prize recruit: an African-American woman, possibly transgendered, or, better yet, transtrans. Lee Rutty's ``Bernard" (SouthCity Theatre) posits an outbreak of zombieism in a tidy British household. Ken Brisbois's ``Paul & Eddie" (Turtle Lane Playhouse) offers a tragicomic dialogue between the two thieves crucified alongside Christ (``Who does he think he is?"). And Peter M. Floyd's ``Possibilities" (Foothills Theatre Company) brings a trio of would-be Lotharios using ever more far-fetched sci-fi story lines to try to pick up a skeptical young woman.

Leslie Harrell Dillen's ``Brain Surgery" at first seems to be a fairly pro forma tussle-of-the-sexes: Bad date Eduardo (Robert Murphy) trades on his physical maladies for a sympathy tryst with Betsey (Helen McElwain). She resists until it appears that their respective infirmities might indeed make for a perfect fit.

The curtain closer -- Jack Neary's ``She's Fabulous" (New Century Theatre), a witty duet starring veteran area comics Ellen Colton and Bobbie Steinbach -- couldn't have been more a propos. As two rival actresses observe a third executing the coveted role of Linda Loman, they alternately snipe and grow hushed with awe.

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