The Humana Festival of New American Plays (March 1-April 9), a Louisville tradition for 41 years, once again attracted both talent and audiences from around the country. I was there not just to check out five world premiere productions, but also to announce and present the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Awards as a representative of the American Theatre Critics Association. (More info on those award here.)
Of the five full-length plays, two stood out as most likely to see multiple productions around the country.
"Airness," by Chelsea Marcantel, concerns six misfits who, in competing in air guitar competitions, celebrate their individuality and the joy of music while realizing the need for connectivity. With a a funny and appropriately music-minutia-laced script, the play never condescends and, in this production, proved to be the most smile-inducing play I've seen in quite a while. If tinkering is to be done going forward, there might be a little less emphasis put on who actually wins. Rather than reach catharsis at that moment, the true climax of this production came during the curtain call, when the characters we've come to love not only rocked out, but so did an actor playing smaller parts, Matt Burns, who turned out to actually be a national air guitar champion.
Molly Smith Metzler's "Cry It Out" was another festival treasure. Two new mothers meet in the yard that separates their houses, with each only going as far as their baby monitors will reach. The two come from different backgrounds and different economic classes and it starts to seem like this budding friendship will soon be hit with predicable challenges. But this isn't that kind of play. Instead, it's one where the laughs and the tears are earned through the creation of interesting, rich characters wrestling with very real issues about how social status, expectations, and finacial matters impact parental choices (and lack of choices). With four characters and a single set, this one should be a no-brainer for regional theater companies looking for work with a strong ability to connect with audiences.
The other three plays each revealed promise and challenges. "Recent Alien Abductions" by Jorge Ignacio Cortinas started out with a lengthy but fascinating trip inside the head of an "X-Files"-obsessed conspiracy theorist. It lost steam, though, when it leaped ahead in time after the death of the monologist as a friend tried to piece together from his family what happened. By the time we got back to his story, coldly played drama and one-note characters had drained the play of its drive.
"We're Going to Be Okay" by Basil Kreimendahl also started off promising enough, this time in the back yeard shared by two neighboring couples in 1962, conspiring to construct and share a bomb shelter. Abbetted by a combo of direction, script, and design, the quartet of characters and their respective children came to skewed life. Alas, after a lively, extensive scene change, the second act took us into the underground bunker where the script bacome scattered and where the playwright couldn't seem to get out of the hole he'd dug.
"I Now Pronounce," a wedding comedy by Tasha Gordon-Solmon, was best when it kept one foot on the ground. When its characters seemed like actual, if exaggerated, human beings, there was fun to be had as the wedding party dealt with the fallout of the officiating rabbi dropping dead at the service. Unfortunately, when it opted to be just another anything-for-a-laugh show, it crumbled. (One example: yet another scene where a maid of honor and a best man offer toasts meant to be wildly funny but only prove embarrassing for the writer.) And shouldn't a dramaturg have done some research on Jewish weddings and caught the gigantic flaw in the basic are-we-married-now-or-not premise?
No matter what the quality of the scripts themselves, though, you can always count on the Humana Festival to deliver standout performances. Satomi Blair, Clea Alsip (think a young Jane Krakowski), Ray DeMattis (as both the rabbi and his wife), and the trio of flowers girls make "I Now Pronounce" more engaging than it deserves to be. Jon Norman Schneider, as the troubled man at the center of "Recent Alien Abductions" is remarkable even if the play falls apart when he's offstage. And if Kelly McAndrew, from "We're Going to Be Okay" doesn't get a sitcom offer from one of the casting professionals who saw the show, then there's something's wrong with Hollywood.
As for the casts of "Cry It Out" and "Airness," here's hoping they all make the transfer to off-Broadway or wherever these plays go next.
And here's hoping theater lovers from Central Indiana take advantage of this remarkable festival when it returns, with all new work, to Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2018.