WHEN they are beating their brows on Broadway about the future of American theater (and when aren't they?), any event promising ``new American plays'' is likely to be stampeded by theatrical movers and shakers. So go the fortunes of the yearly Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL). In nine years, the ATL festival has become one of this country's better-known culture mills, churning out the likes of ``The Gin Game,'' ``Crimes of the Heart,'' and ``Agnes of God.'' Under Jon Jory's direction, more than a few young playwrights, including Marsha Norman, Jane Martin, and Beth Henley, got their start here. In 1980 the theater earned a Tony Award for its unique efforts.
Lately, however, the theater has run into something of dry spell. Recent festivals have produced smaller ranks of talented new playwrights, and fewer productions have traveled to New York and regional stages. While special visitor weekends continue to draw hundreds of critics, producers, and directors from across the country as well as abroad, many observers acknowledge that ATL's annual offerings reflect more Mr. Jory's own artistic taste than American theater in any nascent stage.
This year continued the slim pickings. Critics hoping to divine the heart of American drama and producers on cultural shopping sprees came away with fewer goods than expected. With two or three exceptions, the dozen new works played as a mixed bag of writing talent and execution. Styles and themes ran the gamut, including stock domestic dramas, political works, a period piece, one good ole boy comedy, and a satiric look at evangelism. Collectively they provided no clear bead on the direction of American theater.
In fact, if anything united the festival entries this year, it was the unrelated factors of brevity and violence. Many of the dozen plays were leftovers from ATL's 1984 Shorts Festival, and more than half were one-acts. In addition, nearly all the plays had staged battles in them, and fight director Steve Rankin was justifiably credited on every program.
One of the festival's most satisfying plays, and one of the few full-length works, was ``Tent Meeting,'' an unusual collaboration written and performed by a trio of Atlanta-based actors -- Rebecca Alworth, Larry Larson, and Levi Lee.
An irreverent look at Southern revivalism and mysticism, ``Tent Meeting'' was not only crisply written and acted, but also topical and refreshingly regional in its roots. The tale of an on-the-lam fundamentalist preacher and his two not-quite-right children, ``Tent Meeting'' celebrated the Second Coming in the form of an infant, Jesus O' Tarbox, whose bassinet glowed in the dark. The play's hilarious conclusion mimicked an actual revival meeting, including audience participation and a baptizing -- of an eggplant.
Another Southern writer, Frank Manley, provided the next burst of excellence with his one-act play ``The Rain of Terror.'' A published poet and professor of English at Emory University, Mr. Manley shows no small promise as a dramatist. In this riveting two-person narrative drama of a retired rural couple who entertain an escaped murderer, Manley has crafted a small but well-made play expertly intertwining the multiple threads of plot, character, and theme.
His efforts are only enhanced by a superb performance by Kathy Bates, perhaps best known to audiences for her role on Broadway in Marsha Norman's `` 'Night, Mother.'' Complete with hairnet, mustache, and meaty, padded body, Bates captured our attention from the start.
Slightly less successful was Manley's second one-act, ``Errand of Mercy,'' an ironic look at the ``good works'' of two women who attempt to temper their own misfortunes by consoling ``worse victims'' than themselves.
Another new playwright whose work caught the ear was Bruce Bonafede. His one-act, ``Advice to the Players,'' was based upon an incident that occurred in Baltimore in 1982 in which two South African actors canceled performances of ``Waiting for Godot'' after protests by an anti-apartheid group. Bonafede's version of this political and artistic conundrum was largely sound despite some lapses in the director's character. Most exciting were performances by Tom Wright and Delroy Lindo as the two actors.
Lindo also served as the artistic linchpin in a far less effective one-act, ``The Black Branch,'' by Gary Leon Hill and Jo Hill. A disappointing piece by Mr. Hill, the author of the 1982 ATL premi`ere, ``Food From Trash,'' this work is ostensibly another look at the politics of power. It takes its swipes at the drug industry, overbearing nurses, and everything between. But set in a state-run mental hospital, it plays as an unimproved version of Ken Kesey's original story, ``One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.''
``Days and Nights Within,'' by Ellen McLaughlin, was a taut two-person drama based loosely on Erica Wallach's story in her book ``Light at Midnight.'' Sketching the relentless events of a two-year interrogation and brainwashing attempt in an East Berlin prison, McLaughlin's work was tidily and effectively directed by Jon Jory. Despite a spotlit set that more resembled a chic loft apartment than a 1950s East-bloc prison, the play succeeded on the backs of its intelligent script and intense, nuanced performances by Ken Jenkins and Beth Dixon.
Among the several works bringing up the rear this year were Lee Blessing's surprisingly unfunny two-person drama, ``War of the Roses.'' The author of such past ATL premi`eres as ``Oldtimers Game'' and ``Independence,'' Mr. Blessing seemed off his mark with this preciously titled look at modern marriage.
Blessing is no Updike when it comes to plumbing the heart of surburban matrimony, and many of his lines (``Love is an excuse to forget we exist'') smacked of Pinteresque pretensions. The physical violence that erupted toward the end of this extended one-act was a gratuitous substitute for substantive dramatic exchange. The final balletic coda of the couple's reconciliation was simply strained.
James McLure's ``The Very Last Lover of the River Cane,'' this year's contender in the good-ole-boy category, was a swing and a miss. A tale of unrequited but true love, Texas style, was not up to McLure's previous standards set by his earlier work, ``Lone Star,'' which ran on Broadway in 1980.
Although the verbal jokes packed a minor punch -- ``Hey, you kicked me in the head. That's because she didn't want to hurt you'' -- it was the three rounds of phony fisticuffs that were center stage. The 30 or so minutes of choreographed pummeling gave a workout to fight director Rankin, as well as lead actors Leo Burmester and Christian Kauffman. The Paul Owens set for the ``Tranquillity Lounge'' included a wooden chandelier just right for swinging. The rest happily broke apart at the appropriate moments.
``Ride the Dark Horse,'' by J. F. O'Keefe, was simply an overwrought domestic drama that hinged on the very unoriginal premise of the promising young prodigy struck down by a fatal illness. After sitting through more than two hours of writing that tended toward soap opera and acting that wasn't far behind, the audience was in as much pain as the characters.
``Available Light,'' by Heather McDonald, the festival's lone period piece, was an unwieldly, amateurish work set for no discernible reason in 19th-century France. The story of some angst-ridden villagers, McDonald's play rambled from discussions of feminism and sexual coming-of-age to a longing for spiritual transcendence -- all legitimate themes but not one whit enhanced by the play's antique setting. Marcia Dixon's floaty costumes and Sherry Gilpin's ye olde country dances were only the most gratuitous nods toward authenticity. Most annoying were the extensive discussions of flatulence the author passed off as earthy peasantries.
(Two additional one-act plays, ``The American Century,'' by Murphy Guyer, and ``The Root of Chaos,'' by Douglas Soderberg, were not seen by this reviewer.)