LOUISVILLE—Gotham might call itself the theater capital, but our national festival of new plays takes place in Kentucky. Named for the health care giant headquartered across the street, the Humana Festival has traditionally been associated with lyrical realism, winning recognition for playwrights like Beth Henley, Donald Margulies, and Naomi Wallace. This year’s festival was organized by the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s new artistic director, Marc Masterson, and some visitors wondered if its aesthetic boundaries would shift following the departure of longtime head Jon Jory. As it turned out, the mainstage lineup consisted of several familiar names, with new plays by Tina Howe, Charles L. Mee, Marlane Meyer, Jerome Hairston, Adam Rapp, and the duo of Anne Bogart and Jocelyn Clarke. The majority of these artists have been produced here before, and their plays generally fall within certain limits. Global and political themes were largely absent, though a few plays contained mild feminist and pro-tolerance messages. Besieged, dysfunctional households make favorite subjects, and a number of kitchen sinks could be seen. Despite often parochial themes, the productions were solid, and a few hinted at how America’s most important play showcase could venture into bolder territory. Among the one-acts, Sheri Wilner triumphed with Bake Off, a 10-minute comedy pummeling the Pillsbury Doughboy, and some promising nonlinear techno-dramas (by Alice Tuan and others) stirred things up in the lobbies.
As for the full-lengths, Meyer’s The Mystery of Attraction and Howe’s Rembrandt’s Gift seem cast from the old mold, however, depicting married couples confronting domestic crises in their living rooms or lofts. Hairston, a young playwright from New York, crafts a more refined variation on the dysfunctional domicile with a.m. Sunday, which examines the psychological pressures swelling within a mixed-race family. Hairston has an original but still-tentative voice; the playwright cleverly has his characters talk about everything except the urgent emotional rifts between them, and leaves us guessing about the racial identity of the father’s never seen paramour.
These plays dramatize domestic troubles but rarely point to anything larger. Mee’s Limonade Tous les Jours at least manages to reverse that proposition. Here everything gets overidealized until reality suffers. Andrew, a stuffy American visiting Paris to forget his divorce, meets fabulously outspoken Jacqueline; they begin a playful discussion about what a ridiculous idea it would be for them to fall in love. The couple spends days compulsively detailing the pleasures and perils of every phase of their hypothetical relationship; meanwhile they fall hard for one another, as a real relationship rubs against the theoretical one. Christa Scott-Reed gives Jacqueline tremendous charm and makes Mee’s speechy excess fun and light, but Masterson dilutes his production with superfluous multimedia sequences.
This year’s talked-about, love-it-or-hate-it work, however, was definitely Rapp’s Finer Noble Gases—a far more aggressive kind of realism. Set in a band’s filthy apartment near Tompkins Square, tons of debris litters the floor. Bowls of blue, pink, and yellow pills line a coffee table. A tower of discarded Happy Meal boxes stands in one corner. Gen-Y burnouts sprawl comatose on a battered old sofa, staring blankly into an ancient TV throbbing with sounds of an animal being tortured. You could call it theatrical realism and naturalism combined: the tableau replicates urban squalor with scientific precision, but the jungle noise evokes tectonic forces beyond.
Rapp remains mostly content to give us portraits of these alienated post-adolescents through offbeat and frequently funny dialogue. The outstanding cast (especially Dallas Roberts as Chase) brings humor and desperation to characters whose pill-induced antics include barfing, spitting, farting, kicking in televisions, and actually urinating—at length —into a bass drum six inches from the front row. (Some patrons walked out offended.) But aside from a scheme the band hatches to steal a neighbor’s TV, the play has little movement; Rapp keeps introducing new characters but doesn’t do much with them. Director Michael John Garcés does the meandering script a big favor with his nuanced and resonant production; when the band launches into an impassioned jam session near the end, Garcés gives us a glimpse of the slacker sublime, as they pour out previously unarticulated desires and despair.
The only mainstage piece casting off realism outright was Bogart’s Score, adapted by the Abbey Theatre’s Jocelyn Clarke from Leonard Bernstein’s writings and remarks. On a set filled with toppled-over music stands, Bernstein (Tom Nelis) paces, smokes, and addresses an imaginary creativity class. A soundtrack samples the maestro’s legendary performances as he rapturously “conducts” at the podium. In his turtleneck and white dinner jacket, Nelis couldn’t be more charming, but even his class act doesn’t rescue Score from numbing obviousness. The script basically amounts to a music-appreciation lecture, delivered by Nelis with ironic amiability amid the director’s standard postmodern soundscape. Bogart has staged numerous subtler pieces about artistic visionaries in the past, but this time her project simply feels worn-out. Surely the Humana Festival doesn’t need such a lecture on creative empowerment and the value of art, though it would be wonderful to see more of the full-length plays reach beyond the domestic to show us something truly off the chart.