It was neither the best nor the worst of years for Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays, but it was a turning point in the festival’s fertile, 12-year history. “Discovery,” until this spring, was Humana’s modus operandi. Since 1980, more than 14,000 scripts have been submitted (and dutifully scanned by the theatre’s valiant literary department), and it’s from this wash of ink that the festival productions (144 in all, representing 101 playwrights) have emerged. Last season, ATL artistic director Jon Jory announced that the festival would take a new tack, commissioning works from “established American writers.”
The fruits of those commissions—Jimmy Breslin‘s The Queen of the Leaky Roof Circuit, Marsha Norman’s Sarah and Abraham and Barbara Damashek’s Whereabouts Unknown (the last replacing a work by Susan Sontag that was not forthcoming)—took three of this year’s seven festival slots, and a lineup of six big-name commissions had been set for the upcoming two years. “Cultivation,” according to Jory, is the new M.O.
Is it a good idea? While the wisest observers will wait for time to tell, opinions are running negative. The New York Times‘ Mel Gussow, a long-time festival-watcher, took note of the “low yield” of the first round of commissions and, excepting Arthur Kopit, called the coming years’ choices (novelists and commentators E.L. Doctorow, Ken Kesey, Harry Crews, Erica Jong and William F. Buckley) “would-be playwrights.” “Surely it’s inviting a world of trouble to commission several more celebrated non-playwrights,” warned Elizabeth Maupin of The Orlando Sentinel. Hap Erstein of The Washington Times gave the concept a “yes and no” vote, based on preliminary evidence. Variety tactfully suggested that the shift “might not be the most productive direction the festival could have taken.” The Village Voice‘s Erika Munk didn’t bother with tact: “These authors— so established, so acceptable—ought to be able to get to Broadway, or the regionals, on their own steam, if they passionately want to write plays,” she railed. For his part, Jory mostly laid low while the critics buzzed, occupied with his direction of Judith Fein’s Channels and a workshop production (impeccably acted and zippily staged) of Sarah and Abraham, Norman’s still-developing drama about creativity and infidelity, set, of all places, in a regional theatre.
As usual, camaraderie and conversation percolated before between and after shows in the vaulted lobby and well-appointed downstairs bar of the theatre. Marathoners, predominantly journalists and producers, kept pace with a daunting seven-play schedule. Casting about for a theme to unify at least some of the varied offerings, many settled on “homelessness”—Damashek’s docudrama Whereabouts Unknown explored the problem directly, using testimony from transients, street people and soup-kitchen patrons and setting it all, surprisingly, to music; Breslin looked at the housing problem through the eyes of a black welfare mother on the verge of eviction from her Brooklyn tenement; and Minneapolis playwright Kevin Kling got into the act metaphorically with Lloyd’s Prayer, a picaresque comedy about the ultimate outsider, a boy raised by raccoons.
Kling’s piece, an acknowledged favorite of the festival, was bolstered by the playwright’s skittery, bravura performance as the spiritually and sexually yearning wild boy, twisted by his interspecies upbringing. The play’s satirical targets—phony evangelism, surburban conformity, media sleaze—are familiar, but Kling’s take on them is fresh and loopily funny. Resident designer Paul Owen created a gyre of cable-strung platforms and a heaven-to-earth elevator perfectly suited to the play’s fancifully metaphysical tone.
Owen’s legendary versatility was also on display in the trash-strewn, multi-level set for Whereabouts Unknown and in several plays that had nothing whatsoever to do with homelessness—Richard Dresser’s engaging comedy of romance unrealized, Alone at the Beach, set in an invitingly lived-in old Hamptons beach house, and Murphy Guyer’s abstract exercise The Metaphor, which played out its Pirandellian theses about torture and mind control on a sleek giant chessboard (earning in the process more attention from European visitors than from locals).
“I come here to get the annual theatrical gloom-and-doom report,” a Louisville businessman volunteered in a passing lobby conversation between the acts of Breslin’s gritty urban comedy. “Some years it’s suicide, last year it was toxic waste and the farm crisis. Looks like poverty’s on everybody’s mind now.” On some minds, at least. What the new commissioning process uncovers in the dramatic imagination of writers like counterculture adventurer Kesey, macho novelist Crews and conservative pointman Buckley remains to be seen.
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