Critic's Notebook

Topical concerns were the topics of choice at the 31st annual Humana Festival of New American Plays, one of the oldest national marketplaces for producers and theaters shopping for original work.

With urban friction, war, torture and the Internet among the subjects on the table, none of the plays emerged as a sure-fire bet for national ubiquity. But the majority struck contempo-culture chords with critics or auds in ways that opened up potential for future life.

National appraisal of the fest’s six new full-length offerings — including plays by Naomi Iizuka and Craig Wright — came the weekend of March 31, when critics, producers and regional theater reps descended on the Actors Theater of Louisville, Ky., for its annual weekend of out-of-town scrutiny.

The critical fave was Iizuka’s “Strike-Slip,” an intimately observed study of race and class collisions in Los Angeles. Inescapable comparisons to the film “Crash” may not help among Gothamites who didn’t like the pic, and the geology-jargon metaphor of the play’s title feels obvious. But Iizuka’s characters (finely acted here, in a production helmed by Chay Yew) interact with authenticity, and her storytelling hits a striking balance of linear tension-building and thoughtfully chosen elisions. Given the national press praise, a life in the regionals and in New York seems likely.

Among the weekend’s industry attendees, talk centered on Carlos Murillo’s awkwardly titled but attention-grabbing “dark play, or stories for boys.” Plot, about an adolescent Valmont playing a shell game of online identity to toy with a hapless teen boy, has an edgy, up-to-the-minute feel for the dangers of human interaction in a virtual world, which should attract interest from regionals looking to tackle modern-day issues.

The play is ultimately heartless, and the story strains credulity even for a tale purportedly about the limits of gullibility. Still, the script got invaluable boosts at Humana from an impressively economical staging (by Michael John Garces) and Matt Stadelmann’s riveting lead perf. The play is already slated for a run at Pasadena, Calif.’s, Theater @ Boston Court in the fall.

Sherry Kramer’s “When Something Wonderful Ends” also has a future life lining up already, with Actors Express in Atlanta planning to present the one-woman show next season after a run this month at InterAct in Philadelphia. Lecture-like piece plays like the chick-lit version of “An Inconvenient Truth,” as a woman (played by Lori Wilner) ties America’s over-reliance on oil to the death of her mother and a youthful obsession with Barbie dolls.

Complete with slideshows about the history of Iran, the show can be didactic and heavy-handedly earnest. However, Kramer connects all her thematic dots with a rich humanity, and her liberal-minded distaff viewpoint seems a sure draw for legit’s prime demo of middle-aged women.

Strongest crowd response at Humana, at least at the weekend perfs attended by this writer, was for “The As If Body Loop,” Ken Weitzman’s quirky tale of a family’s attempt to rescue a grown daughter from a mysterious malady.

Dialogue is overloaded with exposition, and the complicated fantasy-tinged storyline — it involves the Talmud’s Lamed Vov, three dozen people chosen by God to suffer the world’s pain — will likely drive realism-inclined auds a little crazy. But the play’s real-life emotional core sneaks up in the second act with surprising effectiveness, and its unpredictable mix of influences, from football to neuroscience, offers several points of appeal to theatergoers patient enough to follow it through.

The highest-profile playwright on the year’s sked was likely Wright, thanks to TV credits that include “Six Feet Under,” “Lost” and the upcoming “Dirty Sexy Money.” Scribe’s Humana entry, “The Unseen,” seems to take allegorical aim at Abu Ghraib with a story of two prisoners held by an unspecified totalitarian regime for indeterminate crimes.

Despite its headline-fodder targets, the story — a brainteaser of captivity, code-writing and paranoid hypotheses — plays like a 70-minute thematic recap of “Lost.” It may not add up to much more than that, but as such it proved the most completely realized of the scripts on display, helped along by a dynamic staging by Actors Theater a.d. Marc Masterson. Play is already skedded for production at Houston’s Stages Repertory Theater in early 2008, playing in rep with Wright’s recent “Lady.”

Like “The Unseen,” the experimental “Batch: An American Bachelor/ette Party Spectacle” seems to have serious concerns, but in this case, it’s not clear what those are. The show can’t possibly just be about gender norms, which seems a little too mid-’90s for eccentric scribe Alice Tuan and Philadelphia performance troupe New Paradise Laboratories.

The muddled subject matter at least yields some nifty interplay between filmed and live action, and at one point (but only one, alas) hits a compelling vein of dream logic. The show will next play in Philly, but further outings likely would require some choreographic fine-tuning and a clearer statement of purpose.

All six shows in 48 hours, along with a bill of 10-minute plays and a mixed-bag anthology of pieces from Rolin Jones, Kia Corthron and others, add up to a long weekend of theatergoing no matter what you think of the plays. But industry folks usually manage to make it a party anyway: Kentucky is the birthplace of bourbon, after all, and as one agent says of the Actors Theater complex, “I mean, there’s a bar downstairs!”

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