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Although unavoidable variation in the quality of the playwriting exists from year to year and from show to show, the Humana Festival of New American Plays is the only program that gives new American playwriting a showcase. Filling its three performance spaces with two shows each, plus an hour-long bill of three ten-minute plays, the festival is a feast for scores of visiting critics, agents, and producers from various popular media who descend upon Louisville for three days to gorge themselves on theatre. The Humana Festival also functions as a kind of cultural Rorschach test. Each year, Actors Theatre of Louisville’s producing director Jon Jory and his creative team program a collection of works that reflect not only the American Zeitgeist, but also seem to provide a funhouse image of America. The imagery we see is sometimes clear, sometimes skewed, but always worthy of discussion.
Frequently leading the way at Humana are the plays of the pseudonymous Jane Martin, a Kentucky playwright who refuses to step forward and receive her accolades (or criticism). Returning with her tenth play, Mr. Bundy (Bingham Theatre), Martin examines the wrenching forces at work when a troubled, but liberal-minded couple discover that the nice, old gentleman next door is a convicted child molester (see TJ 50:3, 1998). As an exercise in dramatic rhetoric, Mr. Bundy holds a certain fascination. As social drama, this play is a tired old man.
In his play Dinner With Friends (Pamela Brown Auditorium), playwright Donald Margulies views the family dynamic through a sharper lens than Martin. Two couples face dark existential fears as one undergoes a divorce. Gabe and Karen (Adam Grupper and Linda Purl) are grief-stricken when they learn Beth and Tom (Devore Millman and David Byron) have given up on their marriage. After more than a decade of weekends away, raising children, and gourmet dinners as a foursome, Gabe and Karen totter at the edge of a chasm over their own relationship. Stylishly rendered by Margulies, Dinner With Friends avoids the quicksand of domestic drama with dialogue that is edgy, honest, and, at times, painfully funny. However, flashback scenes slow the play’s momentum. In choosing to go back in time, Margulies allows the play to idle when it should drive forward. Director Michael Bloom’s cast performs admirably with Adam Grupper’s performance of Gabe as a standout for its simplicity and depth. ATL resident designer Paul Owen offers a handsome, if quirky, series of settings. (Did the tasteful connoisseurs and world travelers, Gabe and Karen, steal their furnishings from a Holiday Inn?)
In keeping with the festival’s examination of families in crisis, Stuart Spencer offered a comic take on love and vulnerability with Resident Alien (Bingham Theatre). Set in rural Wisconsin, Spencer’s play provides a catalogue of comic types who grapple with love and belief after a visit from a UFO. The alien of the title (V. Craig Heidenreich) looks quite a bit like anyone else, except for the greenish hue of his skin. He is a busboy from an alien ship that has abducted a Wisconsin child, Billy (Corey Thomas Logsdon), whose divorced parents battle constantly. Billy’s mother, Priscilla (Carolyn Swift), is convinced that he has been abducted by his father, Michael (William McNulty). Now married to a dull-witted bar owner who samples his own wares too often, Priscilla is a one-note harridan who is later seduced by the goofy, green-tinged alien. The play ultimately reveals that Michael, who loves Mozart and reading, is the true alien in this society.
Resident Alien wasn’t the only play with lost children at its center. Naomi Wallace’s The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek (Victor Jory Theatre), and William Mastrosimone’s Like Totally Weird (Pamela Brown Auditorium) functioned as a...