Several new plays show promise, talent

The 270 legiters who attended the industry weekend at the 36th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays saw six full-length world preems, a collection of food-themed shorts and a trio of 10-minute works during the three day event March 30-April 1. What they didn’t see was a critic from the New York Times.

That paper’s decision this year to skip the fest — the longtime new-work incubator at Actors Theater of Louisville, showcasing scripts in fully produced premieres — means no single play can expect to be anointed as the standout and rushed into Gotham. (Last year, that play was Jordan Harrison’s “Maple and Vine,” which played Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons this season; in prior years, it’s been titles including Gina Gionfriddo’s “Becky Shaw” and Theresa Rebeck’s “The Scene,” which both landed at Second Stage Theater in the wake of Humana plaudits.)

But some festival attendees accentuated the positive, saying that now all plays on the slate can hope to find a path to future life without getting backhanded out of the way by major national press that focuses on one show to the detriment of the others. (The Times opted out of this year’s fest due to scheduling difficulties, and will likely be back next year.)

With no single review dominating the discussion, legiters left buzzing about a lineup characterized by notable variety. Talk centered on a handful of plays that got a strong response from industry attendees or local theatergoers — or both.

Among the top sellers, according to Humana organizers, was “The Veri**on Play” by Lisa Kron (“Well”), one of the better-known scribes to take part in the 2012 fest. A broad, cartoony comedy about an invasive telcom giant and the inhumanity of the corporate age, the show’s current version proved a bit too chaotic and unfocused for some industry types, but its anything-goes satire of contempo life still struck a clear chord with ATL’s ticketbuyers.

Meanwhile, two more strong sellers, Lucas Hnath’s “Death Tax” and Courtney Baron’s “Eat Your Heart Out,” played Humana in tight, well-acted productions that look poised to raise the profile of their writers.

Hnath, an unfamiliar name to many in Gotham, scored with a focused, empathetic story about a rich, dying woman (Judith Roberts) and the Haitian nurse (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) she bribes to keep her alive. A series of two-actor scenes directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, the play lost some theatergoers with its left-turn finale, but most audience members emerged cited Hnath as a scribe to watch. Moreover, the four-thesp cast and compelling storyline about aging and money seem likely to make the show a strong contender for regional consideration.

Attendees were also notably affected by Baron’s “Heart,” which centers on the thorny relationship between an overweight teenager and her mother. Admirers talked up the scribe’s ability to address uncomfortable subjects with humor and bravery, and gave a thumbs-up to director Adam Greenfield’s production, anchored by thesps Sarah Grodsky and Kate Eastwood Norris.

Idris Goodwin’s “How We Got On” also looks likely to be seen beyond Humana. Helmed by Wendy C. Goldberg, the work balances a hip-hop tale of young, wannabe rappers with an accessible memory-play structure and a series of history-of-hip-hop sidebars, suggesting a nonprofit theater could program the title to pull in younger auds while also welcoming the older, more traditional subscribers who might be scared off by the musical milieu.

Reaction was more divided over a couple of other full-lengths. Greg Kotis’ “Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards,” a comedy about immortal blood drinkers, won over some viewers with its wacky take on staying alive, but others found it chaotic. Mona Mansour’s “The Hour of Feeling,” about a Palestinian man juggling a rising academic career and a new marriage in the late 1960s, also had its share of partisans, although others questioned whether the flashy production was an effective showcase for the writing.

Reps for all the plays said they were fielding interest coming out of Humana, with timing made awkward by a Humana sked that showcases plays just as season lineups have mostly been finalized at theaters around the country. Most plays have no future productions yet set, although “Hour of Feeling” will next be presented as part of the U.K.’s HighTide Festival.

The festival overall garnered inevitably mixed reviews. Many praised the lineup as unusually strong, while others were less taken with the general quality of the scripts and the productions. Some wondered whether the variety of styles and themes encompassed by the shows on the slate — either a good thing or a bad one, depending on who you talked to — was attributable to the fact that the plays were chosen when the theater was between artistic directors. With former a.d. Marc Masterson gone and new topper Les Waters only taking the reins in recent weeks, the selection process was presided over by ATL’s lit and artistic departments.

In any case, the festival — an unusual annual endeavor that sets ATL (and its longtime sponsor, Humana) back an estimated $3 million in direct and indirect costs — remains the only new-play event to produce as many full-length world premieres in full productions over one concentrated period of time. No matter what festgoers thought of the 2012 lineup, curiosity remains high to see how things will shape up next year with Waters at the helm.

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