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Short plays are long on emotional power

Ellen Adair (left) plays Andrea the bride and Sarah Augusta her sister Melody in Janet Kenney's 'More Than What.' Ellen Adair (left) plays Andrea the bride and Sarah Augusta her sister Melody in Janet Kenney's "More Than What." (SAMMIE BAIME)

Playwright Janet Kenney doesn't have time for idle chit chat.

Even as the characters in "More Than What," her collection of seven short plays, talk about a broken shelf, a selection of songs, or plantings at a grave site, something much deeper is going on. The beauty of Kenney's writing is that she can cut straight to the heart of the matter in just a few lines of dialogue. In each of her beautifully crafted one-acts, potent emotions of pain, loss, death, fear, joy, and wonder catch us by surprise, even when it should be obvious exactly where she's going.

"More Than What," receiving its world premiere with Centastage at the Boston Center for the Arts' Plaza Black Box, revolves around two families, before and after the wedding of Jack and Andrea. A snobby mother-in-law, a goofball dad, and a control-freak sister/wedding planner are among the crowd who weigh in on preparations for the bride and groom. The plays are assembled out of chronological order, so our understanding of the various relationships keeps shifting, and our assumptions about these oh-so-familiar stereotypes are turned upside down.

Family tensions are immediately revealed in "The Woman You Deserve," in which Dave (Jeff Gill), the ne'er do well father of the groom, tries to give advice to his stable, responsible son Jack (Mike Dorval) on the morning of the wedding. When his hollow aphorisms finally lead to his kindly remark that it's OK to get a divorce, it's clear this dad is not the role model Jack was looking for. But Gill gives Dave such charming boyishness, such a feeling of a guy who just can't get it right no matter how hard he tries, that we sympathize even when he continues to put his foot in his mouth. Later, in "The Way You Laugh," Dave meets with his ex-wife Ruth (an elegant Donna Sorbello), and while it's obvious why their marriage didn't work, Gill's earnest awkwardness as Dave is utterly endearing.

Kenney's return to the same characters in related situations allows the actors to dig in and find nuance. Melody (Sarah Augusta), the sister of the bride, comes off in "Maybe It's Just Dust" as a bossy organizer, but when she returns in "The Space Beside Me," Augusta gives her a vulnerability that brings the scene poignancy. Andrea (Ellen Adair) at first seems too serious for her own good, but in the title act, "More Than What," when she expresses how overwhelmed she is to be surrounded by so much love on her wedding day, the moment has a sincerity that is quite moving.

Director Joe Antoun balances the light and often very funny moments with tender emotional scenes and creates an atmosphere of easy familiarity and flow -- no mean feat, as each of the plays can stand on its own (four of them have appeared over the years in the Boston Theater Marathon ). But it's Kenney's ability to reveal life's seismic shifts in the simplest, almost unnoticed moments that gives "More Than What" such emotional power.