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    Theater Marathon features a most competitive duo

    Ellen Colton (above) and Bobbie Steinbach will play Clarice and Bethel once again in this year’s Marathon.
    Boston Playwrights’ Theatre/file 2010
    Ellen Colton (pictured) and Bobbie Steinbach will play Clarice and Bethel once again in this year’s Marathon.

    The event benefits theater artists in their times of need. And one of its traditions is a pair of actresses who need each other.

    Boston Theater Marathon XVI, presented by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre to benefit the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund, gets underway Sunday at noon at the Boston Center for the Arts, offering 53 10-minute plays by 55 New England playwrights produced by 53 New England theaters, all in 10 hours. There are also play readings at the BCA on Saturday.

    Returning to close out the Marathon for the first time since 2011 are Clarice and Bethel, two well-known Boston actresses of a certain age.

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    They’re friends, or maybe frenemies, as they often squabble and compete for parts. Things may be more difficult between them this year, too, because Clarice has just learned that she’s getting a lifetime achievement award from the city’s theater critics.

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    BETHEL: So they’re implying your contribution to the stage is deep, wide, and expansive?

    CLARICE: Yes.

    BETHEL: You sure they’re not talking about your . . .

    Let’s stop right there. Clarice and Bethel are fictions, created by playwright Jack Neary and brought to life by local actresses Ellen Colton (Clarice) and Bobbie Steinbach (Bethel). This year’s Marathon closes with Neary’s “Lifetime Achievement,” his sixth Marathon play about the pair.

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    “The characters are different from the ladies themselves,” Neary says, “but they’re able to contribute nuances to the characters that I didn’t even anticipate.”

    Colton and Steinbach starred in Neary’s “Beyond Belief” at the Lyric Stage back in 2003, “and I knew that they worked well together, and they were good friends,” he says. Writing them a two-hander seemed like a natural idea for the Marathon. His first was “She’s Fabulous,” which listened in as Clarice and Bethel dissected another actress’s performance.

    “It worked so well, and the audience loved the ladies so much, I wrote another one and another one and another one,” Neary says. After five, he took a couple of years off, but “Lifetime Achievement” is the sixth, and he says we haven’t seen the last of the duo. They may even escape the confines of the Marathon.

    “Both Bobbie and Ellie have been after me to put together a real, full-length play, and I think it would be fabulous. I just
    haven’t had a chance to sit down and come up with a legitimate story,” Neary says. “But that’s something that’s definitely in the offing.”

    Other Marathon playwrights, just to pick a few alphabetical neighbors on the list, include Robert Brustein and Elisabeth Burdick; Kimberly Holliday and Israel Horovitz; Bill Rebeck and Theresa Rebeck (siblings!); Ronan Noone and Rick Park. Most had their work selected from among 400 entries by a judging panel, although a few big names were invited in directly.

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    Some years a theme or two emerges, an indication of what topics are on the writers’ collective minds. Not this year, says Kate Snodgrass, artistic director of Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and a driving force behind the festival.

    ‘I’m hard-put to say that there is a theme.’

    “This year has been interesting, because we had expectations of what people would write,” Snodgrass says. “Some years it’s been Alzheimer’s, or gay rights themes, but this year I’m hard-put to say that there is a theme. They’re sort of all over the map. I think the judges expected a lot of Boston Strong, something about the [Boston Marathon bombing], and there isn’t one.”

    Boston Playwrights’ Theatre/file 2010
    Bobbie Steinbach.

    Of the many submissions she read, there was only one on that hot-button topic, and it ended up not being chosen by the judges, she says.

    Familiar actors include Becca Lewis, Robert Pemberton, Allyn Burrows, Jeremiah Kissel, Steven Barkhimer, Leigh Barrett, Paul Melendy, Larry Coen, Karen MacDonald and many, many more.

    Once again, Marathon weekend includes the Warm-Up Laps, readings of three new, full-length plays chosen by Snodgrass and performed Saturday afternoon in Hall A at the BCA, in an event that’s free and open to the public. This year the plays are “Romeo Chang” by Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich, “Judith” by Julian Olf, and “One Day Earlier” by Constance Congdon.

    And this year, something new: Those three plays will each be preceded by a barrage of 10 even-shorter scripts, called the One-Minute Sprints.

    Organizers hope to raise $5,000 for the benevolent fund, which supports theater artists, and even companies, in times of need. In 2013, the fund helped six recipients with a total of just over $12,000, according to fund treasurer Karen Perlow. It helped them with expenses such as medical or dental bills not covered by insurance, a mortgage emergency, even dealing with a bed bug infestation.

    It’s not hard to imagine Clarice or Bethel turning to the fund for help. They find themselves competing head-to-head for a diminishing number of appropriate roles. As competitive and bitchy and diva-like as they can get, Neary also gives a strong feeling of their companionship, vulnerability, and even bravery. A life in the theater ain’t easy.

    “That vanity, that ego, is part and parcel of what it takes to get up every day and be rejected as often as actors are. For every job you get, there’s probably 20 you don’t,” Neary says. “Actors just don’t know what is going to happen the next day.”

    Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.