Plays That Startle but Satisfy

Actors Theatre in Louisville hosted a weekend of new American works that sometimes shocked

ATTENDING the festival of new plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL) could be compared to a long, nighttime train ride. Over the weekend of April 5-7, seven plays were performed along with two shorter mini-plays. In the last 15 years, ATL has earned a reputation as the jumping-off point for some of the best new work by contemporary playwrights. Every spring, directors, producers, agents, and critics troop from play to play hoping to catch sight of the next runaway hit.

In the heady days of earlier festivals, ATL did premi 143>re plays that won prizes and were mounted Off-Broadway, such as "Crimes of the Heart," "Getting Out," and "The Gin Game." In 1986, ATL officials decided to permit plays into the festival whose premi 143>res had occurred elsewhere. What they have now is a watered-down concept of "new plays." To be fair, out of the nine plays performed in this year's festival, only two were designated as having been produced before. But some of the experimental quality is lost.

"New plays," as currently defined, means the latest, most polished, up-to-date version of a playwright's work.

Along with hosting plays, Actors Theatre also served as the venue for schmoozing and talk about "the business." In between requests for the asparagus dip recipe, participants gossiped about actors, traded business cards, bemoaned editors, and spilled rumors.

It's unfair to draw conclusions about the state of contemporary American theater from these nine plays. They run the gamut of emotional and intellectual content. But it is possible to trace patterns of behavior and thinking in the plays. Below are capsule reviews of four that stood out:

Down the Road

Lee Blessing's work reflects on the public's prurient fascination with the criminal mind. "Down the Road" is eerily well-timed: On the heels of such films as "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" and "Silence of the Lambs," and the book "American Psycho," this play explores the uneasy liaison between a married couple and the serial killer who hires them to write his story.

It's an interesting premise. The killer, William Reach, is a suavely handsome, approachable guy when we - and the husband and wife - meet him. He wants to tell his side of the story. He gets fan mail in prison from 15-year-old girls who've seen his picture and are convinced he's innocent. He doesn't mind giving details about the 19 young women he's slain; the only thing he resents is having either of the writers try to psychoanalyze him.

So, when newspapers and television are full of actual and fabricated serial killers, why write a play about one? I asked Mr. Blessing this question in a brief conversation during the festival.

"Americans have two ways of thinking about [serial killings]," he says. "One is extreme paranoia, followed by absolute denial.... Our response 201> has been to simply absorb it as the new horror and consume it. That's a very dangerous way for society to try to counter big problems."

But what if audiences see this play and are seduced by the attractive killer? What if they're listening raptly to him describing his crimes instead of loathing what he stands for? Doesn't that place "Down the Road" on the level of "true-crime" novels and tabloid stories?

Blessing remains unperturbed. "I designed the killer to be charming at first, so that you would get in the car with him. But by the end of the play, you don't like him at all.... I don't think of this piece as making hay from the very thing it's criticizing." But the playwright fails to shed any valuable new light on either serial killers or the source of the public's fascination with them.

He tries valiantly to portray the stress on the writers' marriage by their daily contact with the killer. The lines he gives the couple often are silly, and the subplot of their trying to conceive a child is contrived and unnecessary. Unfortunately, the play's ending trails off inconclusively.

Night-Side

A deeply troubling play, this extended monologue was easily the most mood-altering of the festival. A shy woman who owns a florist shop watches from her window and talks about what she sees - and thinks she sees. Playwright Shem Bitterman weaves the woman's observations into a patchwork of sleepless nights, shapeless days, and the longing for intimacy.

Mr. Bitterman's writing brings home the awful legacy of child sexual abuse, and forces viewers to examine the toll it takes on adults - if the problem isn't confronted. The playwright has a sensitivity to the effects of such abuse, and writes about it with shattering clarity.

While the seriousness of Bitterman's intent is obvious, it's discomforting that, once again, a troubled female character is exploited onstage. The question arises: Is the audience really taking in the message of sincere concern for victims of abuse, or is it participating in the degradation of this woman by hearing her fantasies and fears?

A Piece of My Heart

Playwright Shirley Lauro provided the festival's most rousing play, a skillfully dramatized compilation of interviews with real women who served in Vietnam. After the welter of patriotism during the Gulf war, it was sobering to revisit Vietnam with these women.

Ms. Lauro was able to take disparate characters and create a complete narrative from their stories, no small task. This play brings the Vietnam saga full circle, giving women their place in the conflict, and creating an exhilarating sense of reconciliation and triumph.

Cementville

Jane Martin's "Cementville," is a comedy that theatergoers are likely to find irresistible, which proves that big laughs still depend on raunchiness, colorful anatomical references, and slapping people around - hard.

The plot entails a group of low-life women wrestlers and the dingy arena in Cementville, Tenn., that they have to perform in. The characters are well-drawn and outrageous, and although the ending is weak and stretches credibility, it's a still a funny play.

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