As it has for 41 years, Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays premiered a handful of stage works this past month, several of which are destined for subsequent productions across the country. Here is my subjective take on the plays I saw in one crowded repertory weekend:
Recent Alien Abductions, by Jorge Ignacio Cortinas – The only drama in a festival sea of comedies, Cortinas’s dark tale of domestic abuse and violence begins benignly with a paranoid stream-of-consciousness 25-minute monologue. Spoken by a young Puerto Rican man named Alvaro who will become an acclaimed writer, it details his obsession with a lost episode of television’s The X-Files set in his native land. But he recalls seeing that episode again in a rerun where significant events have been altered or deleted.
The monologue proclaims Cortinas to be a compelling writer, who knows how to capture an audience, leading us into mysterious, murky waters. Following the solo recitation, the play moves forward 23 years, to the home of the late Alvaro’s infirmed mother. There we are introduced to his brother Nestor and sister-in-law Ana, as well as a neighbor and visitor from New York named Patria who has come seeking the publication rights to Alvaro’s science fiction stories. We learn of Alvaro’s estrangement from his brother, who gains sudden interest in the deceased man’s writings, which are potentially lucrative.
Into this gritty saga, Cortinas injects a bit of magic realism, a metaphor of an alien invasion as Alvaro’s world collides with his family’s from beyond the grave. ATL’s artistic director Les Waters brings it all to harrowing life, notably in the opening monologue delivered by Jon Norman Schneider and a knock-down-drag-out fight scene between Rafeal Benoit (Nestor) and Ronete Levenson (Patria).
Cry It Out, by Molly Smith Metzler – This most satisfying of the festival comedies and most likely to receive many subsequent productions explores the limits and choices available to a trio of new mothers grappling with the balance between their careers and parenthood.
Metzler first introduces us to Jessie (Jessica Dickey), a lawyer on the verge of becoming a partner in her firm, and Lina (Andrea Syglowki), an entry-level nurse at a nearby hospital, both of whom have taken pauses from their jobs to bond with their newborns. The opening segment of the play is broadly comic, as the two women from Port Washington, Long Island, get to know each other, with an emphasis on their differences in financial resources and personal manner.
The play takes a quantum leap in quality and substance with the arrival of Mitchell, a resident of an adjacent affluent neighborhood, who asks Jessie and Lina to let his wife Adrienne, join them for coffee. Career-driven Adrienne (Liv Rooth), a high-powered jewelry designer, is also a new mother, but with no interest in anything maternal. Sure enough, when she arrives, she is unfeeling and impatient, belittling of the two other mothers, a real cold fish. Most writers would have Jessie and Lina rub off on Adrienne, who would learn the wonders of motherhood, but Metzler is more interested in the study of contrasts.
Cry It Out is obviously going to appeal more to women, and particularly to mothers, but the playwright’s deft touch with humor as well as her been-there wisdom about “having it all” allows the work to speak to a wider audience. And the four-character cast and single set will help its appeal to budget-conscious theaters.
We’re Gonna Be Okay, by Basil Kreimendahl – The best way to raise the comic stakes is to base your play in gravely serious subject matter. That is a tenet that playwright Kreimendahl obviously understands and demonstrates with his Cuban Missile Crisis comedy, We’re Gonna Be Okay.
Like Cry It Out, it too centers on contrasting suburban neighbors, Efran (Sam Breslin Wright), a chatty, upwardly mobile idea man, and Sul (Scott Drummond), a cautious, blue-collar guy adept at working with his hands.
The time is early October 1962, and tensions are high over the discovered build-up of arms by the Soviets in their Cuban satellite, 90 miles off the Florida coast. So although they have little in common other than proximity, Efran suggest to Sul that they combine forces and build an underground fallout shelter. Reluctantly, Sul agrees and, yes, hilarity ensues.
The second act (of the only two-act play in this year’s festival) takes place in the shelter, thanks to a set change at intermission which is its own impressive entertainment. Each man has a wife and teenage child, all of whom react badly – though comically – to the potentially limitless confinement. In one of the more far-fetched developments, the teens decide they are their only chance at sex before the world ends.
Events get increasingly screwball as the situation becomes more dire. Unfortunately, Kreimendahl has not figured out a satisfying ending to his play, but until then We’re Gonna Be Okay is more than okay.
I Now Pronounce, by Tasha Gordon-Solmon – Gordon-Solmon gets no points for originality with her audience-friendly tale of a wedding gone awry and a few minus points for her approach to the subject, reducing it to a situation comedy. At that she has a talent to amuse, but it is hard to shake the feeling that she is auditioning to write for television.
In it, the wedding ceremony of Nicole (Alex Trow) and Adam (Ben Graney) gets their marriage off to a bad start when their aged rabbi (a sublime Ray DeMattis) drops dead mid-sermon. As the reception, one of Nicole’s bridesmaids keeps trying to patch matters up, while the other slips into a drunken stupor. Then there’s the groomsmen, one skeptical about the institution of marriage and the other married, but in a relationship that is rapidly dissolving.
Add three adorable young flower girls who serves as a chorus of wary onlookers, and you have sufficient conflict for a couple of plays. But in sitcom fashion, expect all calamities to be tidily resolved by the comic conclusion. Well, maybe not for the rabbi.
Airness, by Chelsea Marcantel — More exotic but equally sitcom-shallow is the milieu of Airness, a succession of grungy bars across the country where obsessive competitors display their mimed musicianship in the regional air guitar eliminations, on their way to the national championships.
Although they compete against each other, the veterans – with such colorful stage names and personas as “Shreddy Eddy,” “Golden Thunder,” “Facebender” and “Cannibal Queen” – form a tight-knit bond against those who do not appreciate their efforts. And a bit begrudgingly, they indoctrinate a newbie named Nina (stage name: “The Nina”) on the ways of their world.
Playwright Marcantel is adept at character delineation, but with the succession of competitions that forms most of the play, it soon wears out its welcome with no metaphor of a larger subject in sight. The audience seemed to stay with it, but my interest flagged about halfway through the 90-ish intermissionless minutes.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Humana production is that director Meredith McDonough cast as the Announcer a guy named Matt Burns, who happens to be the 2016 World Air Guitar Champion. Who knew that was a real thing?
The Many Deaths of Nathan Stubblefield, by Jeff Augustin, Sarah DeLappe, Claire Kiechel and Ramiz Monset — The implicit agenda of most Humana Festival productions is to showcase the stage work of worthy playwrights to launch their scripts towards subsequent mountings elsewhere. The exception to that aim is an annual performance piece tailored to the company’s Professional Training Company, intended to give these young actors experience developing new plays and demonstrate their performance skill and range.
This year it appointed a committee of writers with Actors Theatre connections to jointly create a free-wheeling piece on the subject of invention and inspiration, largely with a Kentucky tie-in.
Do not feel bad about not knowing the name Nathan Stubblefield, an obscure Bluegrass State farmer who envisioned a battery-powered wireless telephone, long before the notion became a commercial goldmine. He is the focus of several of the 11 loosely knitted vignettes, some of them musical, which give the 19 members of the young troupe opportunities to shine.
If anything, the star of the production is director Eric Hoff, whose inventive staging unites the uneven material. The whole is entertaining enough, but the emphasis on Kentucky dreamers would seem to work against a future for the performance collage elsewhere.