Plays can’t shake television talons

Humana fest's femme focus takes on media

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Jerome Lawrence, who died last month, penned commandments for playwrights: “Thou shalt not commit television” was big on his list.

The current crop of earnest, articulate, amply degreed but mainly neophyte scribes at the increasingly youth-oriented Humana Festival of New American Plays appears to share his disdain. More than one play at the 28th annual fest evinced an obsession with the evils of the tube.

Theater defining itself by opposing television is dangerous, not least because the doings of the “idiot box” are both an easy target and difficult to credibly re-create on stage.

But the two most viable and polished plays at the annual fest at the Actors Theater of Louisville — Gina Gionfriddo’s “After Ashley” and Rinne Groff’s “The Ruby Sunrise” — are compelling and accessible stories about women whose complexity and achievements are flattened out and exploited by the self-serving medium.

‘Ashley’ lights fire

“After Ashley” is the play with the buzz. The premiere production, directed by Marc Masterson after a last-minute switch, had many glorious highs and a few dismal lows. But the clear, commercial script is impressive enough both to have palpable Gotham viability and to establish newcomer Gionfriddo as a new name with a boffo future on either coast. She can write the kind of scintillating dialogue that would enliven many a Hollywood property.

The long first scene is a jaw-dropping two-hander between a former hippie (superbly played by Carla Harting) and her son (Jesse Hooker), an alienated teen. Ashley is trying to do the parenting thing, even though she’d rather relate to her kid as a peer who can chat about her lousy marriage and sex life.

In the second scene, we’re suitably shocked to learn Ashley has been raped and murdered by a homeless guy whom her liberal husband, a Washington Post reporter, brought into the house to do chores.

The grieving widower (Stephen Baker Turner) writes a book about the crime, misrepresenting his wife as a cute martyr. It morphs into a TV gig and a veritable cottage industry around the dead woman.

The furious kid, now a reluctant media celebrity, sets out to rescue the reality of his mother from all the network soft-focus crimeshows. Paradoxically, to do so means he must trash her reputation.

The big snafu with the play — and the production — is that Gionfriddo and her director won’t commit to a realistic depiction of TV culture, preferring broad parody that’s inconsistent with the realistic style of the other terrific scenes.

If these sequences were retooled, they’d gain power and this would be a terrific new play with real zap, relevant, funny, of the moment and smart.

‘Sunrise’ of the TV mind

“Ruby Sunrise” has a split focus. It first deals with the titular young woman, an eccentric and troubled inventor whose experiments in television in Indiana in the 1920s predate corporate involvement in the medium.

Groff then fast-forwards to the 1950s, when Ruby’s daughter is trying secretly to tell her mother’s story using a different screenwriter as a cover. But the network drama execs are so crippled by blacklist worries and the machinations of the censor that Ruby’s truth gets mangled once again.

The revelation that TV serves the corporate interests of its owners and advertisers is hardly earth-shattering news. You could also argue that Groff used the 1950s, actually the glory days of the form, when she really wanted to attack the TV culture of 50 years later.

But the deftly constructed “Ruby Sunrise” was the local hit of the festival, in part because it sets up and pays off so well. It’s a decent, old-fashioned lefty melodrama pitting the female artist against corporate evil.

Also at the fest

Also promising, if flawed, was Kirsten Greenidge’s “Sans-Culottes in the Promised Land,” a wacky, wildly over-ambitious play about an over-extended, upper-class black family and their domestic servants. It was a chaotic mess in Louisville, but its potent themes and whip-smart sense of theatricality are enough to suggest a young writer with real, if raw, talent.

Beyond that trio, pickings got slim. Melanie Marnich’s “Tallgrass Gothic” is a capable and intermittently revelatory retelling of Thomas Middleton’s “The Changeling,” a tale of adultery spawning murder, now set in some kind of red-neck, Appalachian present.

The play has its lyrical moments, and colleges likely will find it of future interest. But it’s tough to swallow that its characters go through their lives in such primal, pre-Wal-Mart fashion, sans cell phones or external awareness. And it’s hard to shake the sense that one has seen this play before.

Jordan Harrison’s “Kid-Simple: A Radio Play in the Flesh” is a chaotic and seemingly endless dramatic escapade wherein a young high school inventor (the second of the festival) fights off an avaricious monster in a kind of adult fairy tale on acid.

With live sound effects serving mostly as a distraction, the play has its amusing moments but it traps itself in endless esoteric narrative circles.

Still, after a couple of wobbly years for the leading showcase of new American works for the theater — last year produced “Omnium Gatherum” but little else of the merit — this year’s Humana offered a much more impressive roster and something of a return to form.

The slate still reflects artistic director Masterson’s fringe roots. The sixth show, Naomi Iizuka’s earnest but dull “At the Vanishing Point,” took place in a warehouse in the Louisville meatpacking district and mainly featured monologues by local dead people strung together portentously.

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