The Crossword Play

Shadowland Stages Studio, Ellenville

Let’s see if you have enough knowledge to define these key crossword puzzle terms.

By Andrew Andrews

Kyle June Williams stars in Shadowland Stages’ production of Donna Hoke’s The Crossword Play (or Ezmeranda’s Gift), directed by Mêlisa Annis. Original photo by Elena Holy.

Welcome to today’s seminar, How to Make a Crossword Puzzle!

This master class is presented by a professional crossword puzzle constructor—one of fewer than 500 people in the world who make a living from crossword puzzles.

Our Puzzlemaker (Kyle June Williams) won’t just tell us the ins-and-outs of filling a 15x15 grid, she’ll demonstrate first hand by creating a puzzle from scratch.

This one’s not for a newspaper, though; this one is special: a woman named Ezmeranda has commissioned our expert to create the puzzle as a gift for her cruciverbalist boyfriend (look it up)!

What Ezmeranda doesn’t know is that the recipient is our puzzler’s ex (they lived together for three years!), so this puzzle is going to contain some intimate answers that are sure to take the boyfriend by surprise.

In this workshop, not only will our puzzler share insider information about constructing crosswords; she’ll also over-share about the failed relationship that she hasn’t quite gotten over.

In terms of creature comfort, Shadowland Stages Studio Theatre is easily one of my favorite venues (second only to WPPAC), with roomy, supportive seats, plenty of leg room and intimate sight lines to the black box “stage.”

The Crossword Play’s innovative format as a play-disguised-as-a-seminar is quite interesting, allowing the sole performer to interact with the audience like a stand-up comedian improvising their act.

Without a doubt, what I most enjoyed about this production is the learning experience: playwright Donna Hoke is an actual New York Times-published crossword constructor, so the tips about creating a puzzle aren’t just fluff! As the story unfolds, you’ll learn valuable tidbits about theme answers, diagonal rotational symmetry, crosswordese, panagrams, unches, partials, cheaters and the breakfast test.

The script, I feel, could use some work: for example, I didn’t understand why the puzzler didn’t simply silence her cell phone instead of offering repeated apologies for its incessant interruptions. And while I fully believed that Williams was a real-life puzzle creator (even though she’s not!), I didn’t for a minute accept that a working professional would share so much relationship backstory with her audience. Furthermore, I feel that the very dark turn the plot takes at its climax completely clashes with the overall quirkiness of the story.

Even in Manhattan it would be hard to justify $46 for a one-woman show on a black box stage with only a table and overhead projector as props—and Ellenville is the antithesis of The City! Especially compared to last year’s impeccable production of The Niceties in the same space (which I’m sure I’ll be raving about for years), I just don’t feel that The Crossword Play experience is commensurate to the expense. You can, however, save a few bucks when you purchase at the box office or over the phone, and pay even less with a season subscription!

Andrew Andrews attended The Crossword Play at Shadowland Stages Studio in Ellenville on Sunday, June 26, 2022 @ 2:00pm to write this review.