Short play festivals are a bit of an -enigma. Are they new? Are they old? Are they innovative? Are they tired? It seems like every other small theater in America has some kind of short play competition—and while the plays, by design, change every year, the notion of a bunch of short stories bound into one theatrical volume can be exhausting.

Kudos, then, to the Santa Fe Playhouse and its annual Benchwarmers presentation, which has offered eight new short plays (10 minutes long or so) every year for the last 18, but has recently made moves to keep the production fresh. While the scripts each year do range from fantastic to mediocre, these last two years have introduced a few innovations in Benchwarmers traditions.

Previously, eight plays would have eight directors and eight casts. In 2018, Playhouse folk decided that eight plays should have one director and one cast, and the company presented a fabulous -offering directed by Hamilton Turner. While it didn't sell out the run like previous iterations of Benchwarmers always did (a cast of 24 has a lot more friends and relatives to buy tickets than does a cast of eight), it resulted in a much tighter production and a more professional front.

This year, under directors Annie Liu and David Carter (who also tackle the lighting and scenic design of the theater, respectively), the one-cast idea stayed put, with an added notion: The first half of Benchwarmers is family-friendly and appropriate for kids, while the second half gets a bit dark. For some reason, playwrights like to go to really gnarly places in their short submissions, so ensuring the first half is appropriate for everyone was a nice move.

That does, however, mean the -second half of this piece is more unsettling than the first, and you don't leave feeling buoyant. It's kind of inevitable in this format, and while I think the latter three pieces could have been rearranged to leave us headed to our cars with at least a -glimmer of hope, it's hard to avoid a sinking feeling.

The premise of Benchwarmers, of course, is that the story must revolve around a park bench. This prerequisite immediately requires thoughtful design when it comes to lights and costumes, since there isn't much story to be told with the scenery; lighting designer Joshua Billiter typically provides audio-visual skills and here does not disappoint, lending great help to the scenes by adding depth and nuance to the tableau via the grid.

It is up to the actors, then, to do the rest. This cast is an impressive one, if a bit low-energy on preview night. There is no weak link in the group of eight, which featured mostly familiar faces with one notable newcomer: tiny Grace Yang. At 9 years old, Yang is perhaps a third the age of the next-youngest cast member, but offered twice the professionalism I've seen in some grown adults. Her lines were perfectly memorized, her facial expressions right on, dynamism and nuance all down pat—occasionally, volume was an issue, but it was a small price to pay to see such a young performer make so many impressive moves.

It was wholly unsurprising to see mainstay Marguerite Louise Scott in -mismatched socks, a Hawaiian shirt and pigtails to play a total goofball in DS Magid's "Vultures in Bowling Shoes," and she has great comedic timing—but I've loved seeing her in straighter, more -intricate roles, which thankfully "The Full Story" by Vicki Meagher provided for her. In another fun departure, Brett Becker, who played a largely humorless Bernard in last year's Boeing Boeing, showed his comedic side as a stealthy furniture salesman in the best-written piece of the evening: "The Bench" by Robert Eyster.

Duchess Dale and Don Converse provide the requisite "old people" for plays about aging; there always seem to be at least two of those in Benchwarmers. I have previously theorized it was because many playwrights in town are retirees flexing their creative muscles, but one of the "old people plays" this year comes from 14-year-old Young Playwrights Project member Ariana Roybal, so what do I know?

The very last piece, Robert Butler's "Tolly's Burger Heaven," busts through the 10-minute limit and clocks in at more like 25 minutes, but its cast of one speaking role (Niko'a Salas) pulled it off with finesse. It's not uplifting, mind you, and takes a few minutes to really get rolling, but by the time we hit that final blackout, it stands out as one of the more memorable pieces of the evening, both in writing and in performance. I sure didn't leave feeling joyful after that one—but satisfied? Certainly.

Go check out what local playwrights have offered up this year—then, if you think you can do better, keep an eye out for next season's submission period in May 2020.

The bench awaits.

Benchwarmers
7:30 pm Thursdays-Fridays through Nov. 23; 2 pm Sundays Nov. 17 and 24. $15-$25.
Santa Fe Playhouse,
142 E De Vargas St.,
988-4262; tickets here.