For the past 34 years, theater companies and critics in search of new plays of quality have been making a pilgrimage to Louisville, Ky., in the early spring as the non-profit resident company Actors’ Theatre of Louisville has rolled out its annual Humana Festival of New American Plays.
Over that time, The Humana Foundation — the grant-giving arm of the powerful managed health-care group — has underwritten the development and production of hundreds of plays, representing the longest-running collaboration between a corporation and an arts organization.
In its earliest days, the Humana Festival gave such plays as The Gun Game, Agnes of God and Crimes of the Heart their first productions. In recent years, as more companies around the country have jumped into the new play business and Broadway has been less welcoming to non-musicals, the festival has not had as many visible successes, content to feed the non-profit theater network.
Still, during ATL’s so-called Special Visitors’ Weekend, Louisville becomes the capital of American theater. Artistic director Marc Masterson is justifiably proud that 85 percent of Humana Fest scripts receive subsequent productions elsewhere.
And a play that is bound to get many of them is Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Sirens, a cleverly constructed and written comedy about restoring the passion in a long-term marriage, or at least stopping it from disintegrating after 25 years.
Laufer has been championed by Manalapan’s Florida Stage, which has produced the world premiere of three of her plays — The Last Schwartz, The Gulf of Westchester and End Days. In fact, Sirens was supposed to kick off the current season at Florida Stage, until Laufer withdrew it, begging off that it was not yet ready to be seen. But it certainly is now, as the reception it got from the often tough theater industry audience could attest.
By a quirk of ticket distribution, in the 318-seat theater where Sirens played — one of three stages in Actors’ Theatre’s complex — I was seated right next to Laufer, a proximity that probably made both of us a little uncomfortable. For my part, it was a relief to discover that the play is quite good, probably Laufer’s most audience-friendly and potentially commercial work yet.
It begins in a Manhattan travel agency where Sam and Rose Adelle Abrams are picking out a vacation to celebrate their significant anniversary. But it soon becomes clear that all is not well in their relationship, that Sam has been spending time on Facebook seeking a high school crush he never got over. His impulse to want something more than his unsatisfying life with Rose only increases on the Mediterranean cruise they take, when he hears the alluring call of a genuine, melodic siren and jumps overboard to be with her.
Laufer’s depiction of the Gameboy-playing siren and Rose’s pursuit of her own high school crush give the play a few tasty twists, plenty of laughs and, ultimately, some poignancy. According to Florida Stage, Tyrrell is strongly considering putting Sirens in its new season and it seems likely to be embraced by his audience if he did.[On Sunday, I’ll interview Laufer and will have a further report on the saga of Sirens and how it changed from being not-ready-for-prime-time to the accomplished, entertaining play I saw Friday.]
On the other hand, don’t look for Deborah Stein’s Heist! to be frequently performed. I got back at 12:30 a.m. today from the 21c Museum Hotel, a tony new Louisville hotel and gallery of 21st-century art, which was the venue for a site-specific performance art-improvisational, interactive late-night goof that was commissioned for the Humana Festival and seems unlikely to be able to exist outside the giddy festival atmosphere and locale.
Mingling among the theatergoers in the hotel’s museum-quality art spaces were members of Actors’ Theatre’s apprentice group, acting broadly their cartoonish roles in an elaborate art theft and other diabolical schemes. If nothing else, their participation in Heist! will prepare them for careers in such improv comedy shows as Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding and assorted murder mysteries.
In among the actual out-there contemporary art were faux exhibits and a painting, valued at $200 million — or so we were told — by art world darling Archie Pellago. At the cue of a blood-curdling scream, however, all eyes went to the dead body sprawled across a gallery skylight, just long enough for the theft of Pellago’s masterwork to go unseen.
Then the captive audience was enlisted to help solve the crime, observe lots of over-the-top acting and, as Stein’s convoluted plot had it, find the right red penguin statue that would prevent the many hidden caches of dynamite from blowing up all of Louisville. Never let it be said that the Humana Festival takes itself too seriously.
Editor’s note: Hap Erstein is attending the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., for Palm Beach ArtsPaper.