Twelve years ago, a relatively unknown regional theater, the Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL), began playing host to an annual new-play festival. Since then, the Humana Festival of New American Plays has been one of the most fertile - and most scrutinized - sources of new American drama, producing in its prime such acclaimed works as ``The Gin Game,'' ``Agnes of God,'' and ``Crimes of the Heart'' for scores of visiting producers, directors, agents, and critics. But for Louisville, prime time ran out a few seasons back. Other regional theaters began beating the drum for new drama, and recent Humana festivals were decidedly lackluster in content and execution. Not surprisingly, artistic director Jon Jory began to tinker with the original formula. Last year, Mr. Jory announced the commissioning of new works for the stage by name writers. Of the three - Susan Sontag, Jimmy Breslin, and Marsha Norman - only one was a playwright, and only one (Mr. Breslin) fulfilled the terms of that commission. (Ms. Norman's play, ``Sarah and Abraham,'' was presented in a workshop performance.)
Despite such mixed results, Jory let the other shoe drop this year. The new flock of commissionees (who will present plays during the next two years) include columnist William F. Buckley Jr.; novelists Erica Jong, Ken Kesey, E.L. Doctorow, and Harry Crews; and playwright Arthur Kopit. Although theater officials refuse to confirm the figure, the commissions are believed to run as high as $25,000 - astronomical by normal nonprofit theater standards.
It is a move generating as much controversy as hype. ``What's the difference between a new writer for the American theater and Jimmy Breslin?'' Jory asks. ``No one's place is being taken by these commissions. We're still producing a festival with numerous scripts.''
But critics are calling the process a semi-desperate publicity stunt and a misuse of the theater's limited resources. At the very least, observers say, the commissioning represents a disturbing change of direction for the theater that forged its identity as the flash point of new American drama.
``Louisville is the biggest game in town, and it hurts to see it turn on you,'' says one noncommissioned playwright who asked not to be identified. ``But will this make me stop writing plays? No. On the other hand, you hate not being compensated for your theatrical talents while others are being compensated for their fame.''
But what of the on-stage news this year, the crop of six new plays, the leanest in many a season? Well, much of the critical attention, justly or unjustly, was trained on Mr. Breslin's nascent dramatic efforts. At least it was before the actual production of ``The Queen of the Leaky Roof Circuit.'' A postpartum assessment found the work (which careened through a number of impressive, albeit unrelated, stylistic approaches) high on polemics and low on dramatic savoir-faire.
Borrowing greatly from the Eleanor Bumpurs story (an actual welfare eviction case) and to a lesser extent from Breslin's latest novel, ``He Got Hungry and Forgot His Manners,'' ``Queen of the Leaky Roof Circuit'' evinces lots of simmer-to-the-point-of-boil anger over The System.
Juliet Queen Booker is about to be bounced from her substandard subsidized housing for nonpayment of rent. The usual villains are pilloried: Italian judges, Irish cops, crack dealers. But Breslin delivers his knockout punch to that most hush-hush of the culpable, black males. ``Why are all these kids on welfare?'' asks Booker. ``Where are their fathers? ... Living with some 23-year-old over a takeout chicken place.'' It is the kind of slam-dunk indictment that apparently deterred several black directors from tackling the play. But underneath the hardball anger is a rather Rod McKuen-ish conceit: Hug Reginald Booker, the play's adorable black child, and the world's ills will dissolve.
Barbara Damashek, the fill-in commissionee for Ms. Sontag, presented the flip side of Breslin's underworld with ``Whereabouts Unknown.'' Taking her cue from last season's ``Digging In,'' ATL's docudrama about displaced farmers, Damashek dishes up a collage musical about the homeless. From hours of taped interviews (conducted by moped-riding ATL staff members) Damashek has shaped a production rich in surface verisimilitude but bereft of narrative line. As a result, the production doesn't build much beyond the initial shock value - if indeed the sight of humans huddled inside trash bags still shocks. The sight of humans huddled in trash bags singing is another matter. Damashek demonstrated her way with a tune in the Tony-nominated musical ``Quilters.'' And many of her songs here possess an appropriate Kurt Weill bite. Unfortunately, the cumulative effect was counterproductive; not exactly a modern-day ``Les Mis`erables.''
Kevin Kling, who was last represented at ATL two years ago with the acclaimed one-act ``21A,'' showed the most interesting, if quirky and as yet unformed, theatrical imagination of this year's festival.
In his ``Lloyd's Prayer,'' an overly long tale of a modern-day Mowgli, Kling (who also performs the lead role) takes accurate and humorous aim at TV talk shows, evangelical preachers, and others as he tracks the emergence of this wild child into the human jungle. Kling ably blends pathos with sarcasm, but he's weaker on character development. Many of the scenes were strung together like pop beads, existing for their punch lines.
After these shows, one could draw a line. The festival's other entries all showed discernible cracks. Richard Dresser's ``Alone at the Beach'' aped television. Better than the average sitcom, this story of a summer-share in the Hamptons relied on a ho-hum turn of events but a sharp smart-alecky script. Gloria Muzio's well-orchestrated production featured honed comic performances by Suzanna Hay and Ethan Phillips.
The festival's big disappointments were Murphy Guyer's ``The Metaphor'' and Judith Fein's ``Channels.'' Mr. Guyer, who showed promise in his earlier comedies, was out his depth with the shallow sophistication of ``The Metaphor,'' an arid exploration of the double-helix nature of reality and art. Ms. Fein was off the mark with a confused and confusing look at a woman losing her grip on reality.
As for Ms. Norman, her ``Sarah and Abraham'' was presented as a non-reviewable workshop production. Despite its work-in-progress status, this backstage tale of adultery augurs the much-needed return of the author to the ranks of American dramatists. This may have been the real news of the festival.