Spring is here and a middle-aged criticís fancy turns to Louisville. Toward the end of March each year, the passion for playwriting attracts hundreds to the Actors Theatre of Louisville, where the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays has been showcasing unseen work for 26 years. This yearís festival, under the direction of ATL artistic director Marc Masterson, featured premieres of six full-length plays, a suite of three 10-minute plays, an anthology project of scenes and monologues, and three occasional pieces performed in the lobby between shows. More than 30 playwrights had work on view.
Finding a central theme amid the festivalís variety can be a foolís game, but the title of one play, The Mystery of Attraction, suggested a familiar motif. What is this thing called love? Why do opposites attract? What happens when it goes bad? Questions like these circulated through much of the work that I saw a couple weeks ago during one of the Humana Festivalís marathon weekends for out-of-town visitors.
The Humana playwright best-known to Boston audiences is Adam Rapp, whose offbeat menagerie of American losers has been introduced in three different plays at the American Repertory Theatre over the past 18 months. Finer, Noble Gases adds to their number with its depiction of a down-and-out rock-and-roll band living in a dingy East Village apartment, with crud-encrusted dishes stacked high in the sink and a mountain of discarded Happy Meal boxes in one corner. Grunge takes on a whole new meaning in this bleak and grotesque comedy.
Itís a bitter cold winter night, and the two principals, Staples (Robert Beitzel) and Chase (Dallas Roberts), spend most of the play on a ratty yellow sofa tripping their brains out on " the pinks " and " the blues. " The plot turns on their hapless effort to steal a TV to replace the one kicked in by bandmate Lynch (Michael Shannon). Through most of the action, the drummer, Speed (Ray Rizzo), lies comatose on the floor wearing nothing but a pair of urine-soaked underpants. As the play oozes forward, the drug-induced torpor approaches sheer inertia. This is the boldness of Rappís conceit: let the stoned be stoned. And director Michael John Garcés and his cast give over to it, to great effect. Time slows down, and the trivial and the stupid become fascinating for these guys in a way that is funny at first and just plain gross at times and ultimately comes to mark an unspoken, haunting desperation. For some, Finer, Noble Gases was self-indulgent silliness; for me, it provided a troubling thrill.
Another Humana playwright with New England roots is the accomplished Tina Howe, whose middlebrow plays often take place in Massachusetts. Set in a cave-like SoHo loft, her new Rembrandtís Gift tells the story of an eccentric couple in their 60s. Walter (Josef Somer) is an actor with obsessive-compulsive disorder well past his prime; Polly (Penny Fuller) is a successful self-portrait photographer who gave it up to care for him. Their marriage is threatened when Rembrandt, palette and brush in hand, materializes in their apartment on the eve of their eviction for fire-code violations.
Howe could hardly have made more mundane use of such a fantastic conceit. Her Rembrandt (Fred Major) speaks a kind of faux Shakespeare that is silly and sophomoric, as is the humor wrung from the Renaissance manís introduction to such modern commodities as club soda and compact discs. The budding romance between Polly and the painter is as predictable as it is pallid. And then Rembrandt, having triggered the desired transformations, conveniently returns to his own time. The play ends on a note of defiant self-renewal that just rings false. So, too, does the acting of Fuller and Somer. These two veterans of stage and screen practice a broad and indicated performance style thatís better suited to a big Broadway house than to the intimate confines of the ATLís Victor Jory Theatre. Directed by John Rando, Rembrandtís Gift turned out to be the dud of the festival.
A different budding romance is the subject of Limonade Tous Les Jours, by Charles L. Mee, who returns to the Humana for the third year in a row. Meeís plays of late have been all about love, and this sweet-and-simple treatment of a May-December affair extends the string, almost to the point of exhaustion. Jacqueline (Christa Scott-Reed) is an alluring and leggy young French chanteuse. Andrew (Tom Teti) is a fiftysomething American tourist with a video camera and a lump in his throat. Both are on the rebound, and by chance they meet in a Paris café one fine spring day. Against their own wills, they succumb to an attraction that takes them to restaurants, public gardens, and bistros where they are always served by the same handsome waiter (Josh Walden). The more they talk about what a bad idea it is to get involved, the more involved they get.
Marc Masterson stages the play with a light touch on Paul Owensís elegant all-white set, which serves as a screen for slide, video, and film sequences that feature Paris sites by day and night. The romance is palpable, but Teti and Scott-Reed do not quite have the chemistry necessary to reach the bittersweet poignancy at the heart of the play. Still, Limonade Tous Les Jours suffices as a valentine to love and to the insouciant City of Lights that seems to engender it without a care.
Love and marriage are in trouble in both Jerome Hairstonís a.m. Sunday and Marlane Meyerís The Mystery of Attraction. Directed by Timothy Douglas, Hairstonís play centers on an interracial couple, R.P. (Ray Anthony Thomas) and Helen (Barbara Gulan), whose marriage is marred by an unexplained coldness that is related to a series of ominous, anonymous phone calls. Their troubles are contrasted with the budding romance between their 15-year-old son, Jay (Jeremy Alan Richards), and a white schoolmate named Lorie (Tarah Flanagan).
Over five days in November, the marital tension mounts until Helen returns home early from a trip and must face the truth behind the phone calls. Exactly what that truth is remains inscrutable to the audience. Hairston aims for a gathering mystery that comes into focus just as the play climaxes, but despite the castís compelling performances, he achieves only a vague uncertainty that left me, for one, scratching my head.
The Mystery of Attraction had me tapping my feet as I waited for it to be over. Meyerís play comes off as an unfinished script that gets into the middle of a muddle and cannot find its way out. The same might be said for its two main characters, a pair of comically woeful brothers who would be funnier if they did not whine so much. Ray (Steve Juergens) is a struggling lawyer who has lost that loviní feeling for wife Denise (Claudia Fielding) but needs her cash to pay off $20,000 in gambling debts. Warren (David Van Pelt) is a former vice detective who turned to drugs and child pornography after stealing and marrying Rayís first wife and one true love, Sharky.
When Warren shows up at Rayís house late one night and starts swigging Glenfiddich from the bottle, youíre apt to suspect that something horrible has happened long before he gets around to making his gruesome revelation. In the meantime, the two spend most of the play sitting around complaining, often in crude and sexist terms, about women in general and their wives in particular. Like Rappís Finer, Noble Gases, Meyerís play seems to draw energy and inspiration from Sam Shepard ó the quirky, droll characters, the shadow of violence lurking in the wings, the American Gothic sensibility. But it needs a lot of work (and a second act) if itís to find the balance of ironies that this type of play requires.
If there is a mysterious attraction in Score, the most unusual and difficult of the Humana offerings, it is the love of music. Conceived and directed by Anne Bogart, with a text assembled and adapted by Jocelyn Clarke, Score completes the trilogy of solo performance pieces about great artists that Bogart has created with members of her celebrated ensemble, the SITI Company. Having examined Robert Wilson and Virginia Woolf, Bogart, Clarke, and company now faces off with legendary composer, conductor, and music educator Leonard Bernstein.
On a stage strewn with toppled music stands and backed by a broad horizontal stripe of mirror, Score takes the direct and unapologetic form of a lecture drawn verbatim from Bernsteinís writings and speeches over the years. In a tour-de-force performance that combines passion and discipline, Tom Nelis does not impersonate the maestro so much as he unleashes his torrent of words as a way of extending Bogartís continuing meditation on the nature of creativity and what it means to be an artist. " What is music? Why is music? What does music mean? " he asks in a manner that makes it clear that the questions are more important than the answers. At moments, the flood of language gives out in favor of a sequence of energetic and hieratic gestures that abstract the path of the conductorís baton. The implication is that the truest understanding of music can be found only beyond words ó in the rhythms of performance itself. In its unabashed and fervent intellectualism, Score was the most challenging and distinctive offering at the 2002 Humana Festival, which on balance offered fewer clunkers and fewer zingers than in recent years.