Making Progress 

Making Progress

Making Progress

Theater

There was a lot to like at this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actor’s Theatre in Louisville. Now in its 21st year, the Humana Festival has earned a well-deserved reputation for premiering notable new works by American playwrights. Every year, the festival attracts an international audience of theater directors, producers, publishers, playwrights, and journalists for an annual weekend marathon of eight to 10 new plays.

Past Humana Festival premieres have included two Pulitzer Prize-winning plays and numerous other award-winning works by now well-known playwrights such as Marsha Norman, Horton Foote, Romulus Linney, and Jane Martin. But audiences typically have to pay for the privilege of seeing a wonderful new play by enduring at least one round of animated gibberish. This year was an exception: While two of the full-length plays that premiered were still works in progress, there was not a real clinker in the bunch.

Richard Dresser’s new play, Gunshy, is a comic vivisection of a divorce—a distinctly ’90s American version of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Still connected by their 12-year-old son and by years of memories, Duncan and Evie are both struggling to make their new relationships work at any cost. Evie, who is fast approaching 40, sees her new lover Carter as her last chance to have another child. When Carter admits that he’s “a few soldiers shy of an army,” Evie is ready to undergo painful in vitro fertilization to produce the child she believes will complete their relationship. Duncan views the divorce as a chance to make his twentysomething girlfriend, Caitlin, an honest woman—until Caitlin confesses that the thrill of sneaking around with a married man was what she liked best about him.

Neither of these liaisons is nearly as dangerous as the outside world, however. As the couples bicker in the relatively safe confines of restaurants, houses, and offices, the world outside offers a menacing combination of nasty weather, muggings, and sporadic gunfire. Desperate for safe inner harbors, Evie and Duncan cling stubbornly to their failing relationships until even their “divorce is in shambles.” Gunshy is director Gloria Muzio’s sixth collaboration with Dresser, and under Muzio’s sure direction, the playwright’s witty dialogue fairly crackles.

Just when you think playwright/director Steven Dietz’s new play, Private Eyes, is degenerating into a predictable romantic comedy about a director having an affair with his female lead, Dietz throws his first curve ball: You discover that you’re watching a play within the play. As it is turns out, though, Adrian, the snide British director of the predictable romantic comedy, really is having an affair with Lisa, the female lead—who is cast opposite her increasingly suspicious husband, Matthew.

Where does the play end and real life begin? Dietz keeps the hilarious curves coming as his characters play the same roles onstage and off. With direction as good as his writing, Dietz gets flawless comic timing from his cast; the actors turn on a dime, never giving away any of the delightful surprises.

For a brief, scary moment, Icarus, Edwin Sanchez’s gentle comedy about a group of misfits who end up in an isolated island beach house, raises the ghost of Gilligan’s Island. But the castaways aren’t lost—they’re hiding from the real world. Altagracia’s face is hideously scarred; she can dream of love only by escaping the cruel stares she confronts daily. Her crippled brother, Primitivo, dreams of becoming “the most beloved and famous swimmer” in the world. When Beau, a young man wearing a mask, arrives on the island to spend time alone so that he can come to terms with his brother’s violent death, it becomes clear that the three will provide each other with the courage to stop hiding and act out their impossible dreams.

However predictable, Sanchez’s play has some sweet and genuine moments, as Beau discovers Altagracia’s inner beauty. But Icarus drags in places and suffers from an extraneous character, a nutty beachcomber whose constant litany of “I’m not staring, I’m not staring” as he passes Altagracia and Primitivo on the beach becomes a tiresome distraction.

Drawing from interviews with runaways and street kids, Naomi Iizuka’s Polaroid Stories and Songs From a Girl With No Tongue draws a parallel between the lives of homeless children and those of Greek mythological characters. Like their mythical counterparts, Iizuka’s street kids are of uncertain origin—possibly supernatural and certainly the stuff of legend. “OK, so how I got on the streets is like this,” Narcissus recites, “I fell out of the sky over Lincoln, Neb.—no, wait, it’s like this—I washed up on the shore of Lake Superior.... I was left for dead on an island off Vancouver—I was left for dead in a room in Las Vegas.... I was abandoned in a shopping mall in San Ysidro.”

Iizuka’s Narcissus is a cocky, pleasure-seeking transvestite who stares at his bright-red coif in a pool of rainwater. Echo is an easily ignored, shadowy street presence, Dionysus a drug dealer, and Eurydice a streetwise prostitute trying to forget the life she left behind. Zeus and Hades are pimps and thugs. Their Polaroid Stories are played out in a black inner-city cage, which the actors use like a gymnastic apparatus. The action never lets up. The set is particularly incredible, considering that it’s squeezed into the small Victor Jory Theater, a “black box” that affords theater-goers less leg room than a Southwest Airlines seat and offers equally limited stage space.

While Iizuka’s idea is good, her play is uneven. Too often she allows her characters to descend into merely shouting profanity. But in its best moments, Polaroid Stories shows how much more these characters have to say.

Carol Mack’s In Her Sight and Benjie Aerenson’s Lighting Up the Two-Year-Old are both based on actual events, but their similarities end there. In Her Sight dramatizes the story of pianist Maria Paradies, a blind Austrian prodigy for whom Mozart wrote his Piano Concerto No. 18. After losing her vision as a child, Paradies suffers the attempts of doctors to heal her with leeches, herbal potions, and electrotherapy. When the last of these grim treatments causes spasms that abate only when Maria plays piano, her father places her in the care of the controversial Dr. Mesmer. He cures her blindness, whereupon she discovers that she can no longer play.

Mack’s play is a fascinating exploration of the nature of sight, and the portrayal of Maria’s torturous treatments is harrowing. But the playwright is less successful at exploring the inner vision that makes Maria a great pianist, and she’s unable to create any dramatic tension when Maria gains her sight and then loses it again. The play tells a wonderful story, but it feels strangely flat.

In Lighting Up the Two-Year-Old, all the action takes place offstage—which is the play’s major problem. A failing horse farm is in such serious financial trouble that there’s only one way out—the electrocution of a heavily insured horse in such a way that it won’t be detected by an insurance adjuster. In the first act, the murder plot is hatched; in the second, it appears as though crime may indeed pay—but there’s a suspicious insurance investigator waiting ominously in the wings.

The trouble is, he stays there. Aerenson’s characters are compelling, but they’re given nothing to do but talk. In both acts, the trainer tells the story; after a lifetime of manipulating horses, he knows exactly how to force the other characters to play out both scenes just the way he’s planned them. In the end, Lighting Up the Two-Year-Old is a better story than it is a play.

Despite these works in progress, no one who attended the Humana Festival left disappointed. All of the plays were promising, and the polished productions of Gunshy and Private Eyes are destined for successful runs elsewhere. Actors Theatre should be commended for a festival that marks the premiere of several very good—and very different—plays.

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