CRAMMED into a tight weekend recently, the 16th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville sliced through a healthy cross section of prevailing American sensibilities.
Wading through the varied work of 11 playwrights, one could feel currents in the culture at large and the preoccupation with mortality in particular.
The Humana Festival is a satisfying event because the acting is universally good (sometimes very good) and the productions sound (sometimes super). Because a variety of styles and ideas bump elbows in such close quarters, you leave feeling a little closer to the pulse of theatrical happenings. Which is not to say that those happenings are necessarily satisfying in themselves. Still, the festival offers a sparkling, friendly atmosphere in which to consider new (and used) theatrical ideas. Trilogy of short plays
Among the most successful plays were Jane Anderson's "Lynette at 3 A.M.," and Lanford Wilson's "Eukiah," two of three short plays. Condensed into 20-odd minutes, Ms. Anderson's wakeful Lynette contemplates love and death in the wee hours of the morning as her lover pragmatically tries to sleep through her musings in anticipation of the workaday world. In an upright bed (as if we were looking down on it from above), the winsome Lynette (Anne O'Sullivan) struggles with mortality as Bobby (V. Craig Heidenre ich) struggles for oblivion. Lively and compassionate, the comedy tickles us and poignantly captures the loneliness of a woman afraid of death. We certainly understand her plight. But though Lynette asks all the right questions, Anderson leaves her with only sexual fantasies and the longing for true intimacy to ease her long dark night.
"Eukiah" is as dark a murder story as you're likely to find. A retarded youth has overheard a plot to kill the race horses he tends. Another employee, Butch (played with frigid assurance by Mark Shannon), tries to lure Eukiah out of his hiding place in an airplane hanger to reassure him no such plan exists. Has the boy merely misunderstood a harmless conversation or has he misplaced his affection and his trust? The frightening thing about this piece is the indifferent brutality it unmasks. In Butch's lon g speech to Eukiah in the shadows, he manipulates the boy's best instincts. Here is a fully developed portrait of evil in Butch's cool betrayal of Eukiah - evil that is both complex and devoid of passion. In a very few minutes, 'Lynette at 3 A.M.' and 'Eukiah' created a whole universe of character and trouble. 'Procedure'
Joyce Carol Oates's "Pro- cedure" completed the trilogy of shorts. One nurse uses hospital procedure to distance herself from death. The trouble is, can she feel anything at all about life? So icy and so flat is this piece, you could skate on it. 'Hyaena'
Ross MacLean's depressing "Hyaena" places a strangely solicitous man in the hospital room of a querulous dying man. As the old man's wife and friends desert him, the stranger alternately tries to console and undermine his dim hope. The stranger wants something from the old man - he keeps watch over the patient out of some bizarre need of his own. He may take whatever baubles he can scavenge from the dying, but the "Hyaena" (as the old man calls him) wants something besides the ring on the patient's hand,
the uneaten salad on his dinner tray, or the old coat in the closet. The Hyaena wants some assurance of immortality. It's a long way to go for very little insight. 'Marisol'
The most ambitious and arguably the most interesting play of the festival was Jose Rivera's failed surreal extravaganza, "Marisol." The first act promises so much, what with an angel revealing to a fragile Puerto Rican secretary that there will be war in heaven and apocalypse on earth. The delicate Marisol escapes bludgeonings and sexual assault by the grace of her guardian angel. This is no fit world for women and children. And in her dream, Marisol asks why there is a war on children, then lists all th e horrors of poverty and contemporary life. The angel's reply weaves ancient myths about a dying god with political unrest.
Mr. Rivera says his mythopoetic imagery offers a metaphor for the death of the old patriarchal system - he believes it is sick and dying and needs to be killed off so that the world may bloom again.
Because Marisol refuses to participate in the upheaval, her angel abandons her to the miseries of earth. As she wanders aimlessly about the streets, she encounters a skinless man (a victim of Nazis), and then a pregnant man - surreal metaphors for the nightmarish miseries of contemporary American society, especially as it exists in New York. When Marisol then meets a Nazi girl fresh from an atrocity, that phenomenon appears as another form of victimization. The surreal imagery is often provoking. The apo calyptic fervor of the story is both passionate and convincing.
But though Mr. Rivera is a considerably talented man of poetic sensibility, his oil and water mix of myth and politically correct proselytizing seems overwrought, simplistic, and finally moralistic. The second act of "Marisol" meanders from one strident moral point to another, ending up irritatingly squeaky and self-indulgent.
Still, Rivera seems capable of more than he pulls off here. The textures of "Marisol" are rich and complex. He deserves to be taken seriously. 'D. Boone'
Marsha Norman's disappointingly retro "D. Boone," on the other hand, breaks no new ground at all. A modern museum janitor in love with the legendary Daniel Boone finds a way back into history to be with her idol. When a persistent suitor and two other concerned guys follow her into history, she learns more about looking for love in all the wrong places. The script is sometimes funny, sometimes tiresome, and fluffy as duck feathers. 'The Old Lady's Guide to Survival'
Mayo Simon contributed a poignant comedy of old age in "The Old Lady's Guide to Survival." The intelligent, amusing script received a giant boost from the two actresses playing the irrepressible Netty (Lynn Cohen) and the sprightly Sprintzy (Shirl Bernheim). The independent Netty fears intimacy with other aging strangers who might bring her down. But failing eyesight makes her temporarily dependent on a sweet, forgetful neighbor. Soon Netty is involved in Sprintzy's tragic life. Nothing really new here, but still touching and fully realized. 'Bondage'
David Henry Hwang ("M. Butterfly") offered a bizarre sexual metaphor for the complexity of race relations and the sad contemporary incapacity to love. The ultimate humiliation is to tell someone you love them in "Bondage." The action takes place in a brothel, surprisingly free of explicit eroticism. Mr. Hwang has the wit to see how troubling these issues are, and the comedy places all races in an equally harsh light.
Nearly all the plays of the Humana Festival were entertaining and pleasant enough, the writing crisp, often smart, sometimes amusing. Yet, something was missing. Only "Lynette" and "Marisol" seemed to ache for the stage at all. Most of them would fit nicely within the confines of television without losing much in translation. Not even the best of them revealed much of the complexity and meaning of human experience. Nowhere was there evidence of the greatness of spirit that makes art lasting, deeply satis fying, or capable of changing perception.