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Fest’s ‘Scene’ stealer

Humana's selection offers glimpse of future

Theresa Rebeck looks certain to make a scene — make that “The Scene” — in New York in the near future.

Rebeck’s play, about the soulless lives of four Gotham-dwelling media types, emerged as a critical fave at the 30th Humana Festival of New American Plays, winning praise from the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune.

Even before the reviews hit, James C. Nicola, artistic director of Off Broadway’s New York Theater Workshop, told Variety he’s interested in bringing “The Scene” to NYTW next season, or possibly as early as this one.

Nicola was among the 275 industry folk from around the country who descended on Louisville, Ky., for the “special visitors” weekend March 31-April 2. Presented annually by the Actors Theater of Louisville, the fest this year premiered six full-length offerings, along with a multi-scribe variety show about Las Vegas and three 10-minute plays.

Recent years have yielded buzzed-about scripts such as Rinne Groff’s “The Ruby Sunrise,” which bowed at the Public this season; Gina Gionfriddo’s “After Ashley,” which had a run at the Vineyard last year; and Adam Bock’s “The Shaker Chair,” currently angling for a Gotham berth.

The critical support for “The Scene” seems to make it this year’s belle of the ball, and Nicola went to Louisville in part to gauge whether NYTW was interested in just the play or the full Louisville production, helmed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman.

Some critics liked Taichman’s direction, but other theatergoers, including this one, found the staging fidgety and most of the performances grating.

While Rebeck has an admirable grasp of her characters’ quirkily articulate, self-involved voices, the play’s cultural critique — we live in a meaningless vacuum obsessed by celebrity and youth, it turns out — won’t be a revelation to anyone who’s been paying attention.

Or at least not to anyone already inhabiting the New York media milieu that is the play’s setting — and that demo will make up a large percentage of the show’s aud at NYTW. But “The Scene” will surely play well outside of Gotham, in places where the blather and desperation of the entertainment world might still seem impossibly exotic.

Also likely to do well in the regionals is Sharr White’s “Six Years.” The play, which chronicles 24 years in the marriage of a troubled vet of World War II, probably is too earnest and openly sentimental for most New Yorkers. But the story’s wounded characters, broad sweep and historical snapshots of Midwestern life could prove a strong draw in other markets.

Anne Bogart’s SITI Company and playwright Charles L. Mee returned to Humana with “Hotel Cassiopeia,” an imagistic performance collage inspired by the life of Joseph Cornell. The team’s last artist-inspired outing, “bobrauschenbergamerica,” presented in New York by BAM after it preemed at Humana in 2001, was unexpectedly lively, funny and resonant.

But in contrast, “Cassiopeia,” while pretty to look at, is too elliptical and esoteric to strike any real chords, even among those with a passing familiarity with Cornell’s work.

Also returning to Humana was Jordan Harrison, whose play “Kid-Simple” preemed at the fest in 2004. His latest, “Act a Lady,” directed by Anne Kaufman, turned out to be the most smoothly entertaining of the bunch, a good-natured comedy set in 1927 about the men in a small Midwestern town doing drag for a local play.

The script shows an appealing imaginative streak, even if the dream-logic of its gender-bending becomes increasingly muddled as it goes along. The show is already on the slate at Oregon’s Portland Center Stage.

“Low,” a solo show written by and starring Rha Goddess, treads familiar territory as it follows one young woman’s battle with the demons of mental illness, medication and homelessness. Still, Goddess is a commanding performer, and the piece’s payoff, a sudden shift into a forthright lecture about our med-happy society, manages to be both surprising and galvanizing.

Meanwhile, Eric Coble’s “Natural Selection” filled the spot reserved for the weekend’s biggest letdown.

Ham-handedly directed by Humana a.d. Marc Masterson, Coble’s ambitious comedy, set in a slouching-toward-Armageddon future where theme parks poach indigenous populations for their attractions, follows a corporate cog and his wife as they reawaken to real life over virtual reality. It plays like a chaotic riff on a George Saunders short story (specifically his 2000 tale “Pastoralia,” adapted for the stage earlier this season at P.S. 122), stretched too thin.

As the marathon weekend progressed, some festgoers expressed disappointment with the slate, saying Humana’s cachet has dimmed since the 2000 departure of founder Jon Jory and the 2001 exit of lit manager Michael Bigelow Dixon.

Still, creatives are quick to point out there are few artist-nurturing events like it. “Of course, I always believe that what I’m doing is important,” says playwright Bock, who wrote one of the season’s 10-minute plays. “But I love coming somewhere where everyone else thinks so, too.”

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