Hurts So Good

While Schadenfreude, a collection of five short plays written by Todd Kulczyk and Kristina Leach, is uneven, the cumulative effect is impressive. These two young writers focus on relatively simple stories of real-life situations in ways that don't come off as diary entries or TV- or movie-inspired, formulaic dreck. There are no clichs, few literary pretensions, and no smart-alecky irony or forced, shallow humor.

Instead, we get five smartly written plays that illuminate some aspects of what it's like to be young and confused—relationship difficulties, career fears, general anxiety, the most colorful adjective used to describe a vagina—all presented via fluid, believable dialogue and characters that feel real.

The weakest of the five is Consummate. It's hard to get a charge watching college students mope about grad school and careers, but even here the writers sound a common theme: the characters are waiting for something better to come along, waiting for the good, fulfilled life to really begin.

Debs is the funniest piece. Five attractive women are stranded on the side of the road on the way to a baby shower in Las Vegas. In a state of crisis, alliances constantly shift and fears often compromise friendship. The ensemble works splendidly together, with each of the actresses imbuing her character with real depth and personality.

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First-act closer The 1st stands out in terms of subject and intensity. It's a highly disturbing piece centering on violent sex that may not be sex after all. Kudos to the writers and director Michael Serna for giving us only hints about what's really going on.

Neapolitan is a one-gag concept that doesn't feel properly explored, but it gets strong performances from Kevin Doyel and Serna. Supernova in Hamlet is the only play that gets a single writing credit—Leach's—and it's both the most disappointing and ambitious of the night. It's ambitious stylistically and in the playwright's genuine attempts to explore the complicated demesne of the heart. But it's disappointing because the dual strands of relationships in crisis never seem to pull together into one cohesive thread.

Schadenfreude at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Through Oct. 30. $10-$12.

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