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HUMANA FESTIVAL : Kentucky Cycle - At Louisville's Humana Fest, the plays--clever, stirring, tender, or disturbing--are the thing.

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B Jennie Webb

"Is this your first time?" It was a question I heard again and again last weekend, at the 22nd Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. But there was no judgement in it, no "and who are you?" looks, no elitist seating arrangements. Indeed, rather than making me feel self-conscious about my wide-eyed virgin status, the query came in a sincere voice of welcome that seemed to say, "How glad we are you found your way here."

Surrounded by high-powered Hollywood studio executives and representatives from major theatres and media outlets across the country--indeed, from around the world--the air at Humana last weekend, officially its "Special Visitors Weekend," was refreshingly attitude-free. From the suits to the nonprofit wonks, we were all there to experience a playwriting hoedown at one of preeminent laboratories for new work on U.S. soil.

The Beat Goes On

The weekend began with New York playwright Stuart Spencer's Resident Alien, a clever comedy about an uninvited guest from another planet who ends up in a small town in the Midwest. Having completed its mission to kidnap--the nicer word is "borrow"--a young boy for testing, the alien ship has departed, sans a crew member.

With its pop-culture references, broad characters, and inspired one-liners, Resident Alien is a kind of marriage of The X-Files and Fargo, with a touch of Flintstones thrown in and the inevitable comparison to Third Rock From the Sun. And the abducted boy's father, an over-educated K-Mart worker who can't get the townsfolk to believe his UFO story, was sweetly played by ATL veteran William McNulty.

The next day began with an early-morning venture into the Beat world of Jack Kerouac. Adapted and directed by JoAnne Akalaitis, former artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival and co-founder of Mabou Mines, Ti Jean Blues marries Kerouac's writing to music and movement on a bare checkerboard set under neon lights, with Mingus and Parker on the soundtrack.

Of course, it's Beat language that is the meat here, and Akalaitis parsed letters, novels, and poems to evoke Kerouac's life and time, including the infamous trip On the Road to Los Angeles to find "the origin of B-movies." But it's really only the words that were interesting here, and all the rest--hard-working actors included--just got in the way. It made me want to return to the original texts--and made me realize there's a good reason some authors' works haven't been staged.

After lunch came the elusive Jane Martin's Mr. Bundy. Martin, a pseudonym for the Kentucky playwright associated with ATL for nearly 20 years, is well known for her monologue work and also for delving into serious issues by approaching them on a human level, as in the recent abortion-themed Keely and Du.

Her newest piece raises the thorny question of what the parents of an eight-year-old girl might do if they found out that a convicted child molester lived next door. In this case, the parents (Mark Schulte and Stephanie Zimbalist) are hard-working professionals who have bought a home a bit beyond their means so their daughter (Margaret Streeter) can be raised in a "safe" neighborhood with good school and caring neighbors, including grandfatherly Mr. Bundy next door (William Cain).

Kindly Mr. Bundy often takes the young girl into his basement to sing songs, do arts and crafts, and sometimes play dress-up. That seems innocent enough--until a new couple moves in. This pair (Norman Maxwell and a smashing Peggity Price) are the founders of a watchdog organization whose mission is to alert unknowing parents of the presence of convicted child molesters.

Directed by ATL producing director Jon Jory (whose extremely close association with Martin has frequently come under suspicion in speculation about the playwright's identity), Mr. Bundy transforms what is typically seen as a simple black-and-white issue into a fascinating study of relationships, addiction, responsibility, and the principles of forgiveness. The even-handed treatment of the material and complexity of the characters is thought-provoking and emotionally wrenching. It's a consuming look into the working of psyches at all levels.

Best Friends' Marriage

The festival's next offering was a bill of three "10-Minute Plays." Meow by ATL Literary Associate Val Smith opened the program with a very funny shapshot of two women having cocktails after work, dishing the dirt about office politics. Next, 25 year-old David Graziano's Acorn follows the inevitable progression of a sweet Brooklyn romance which begins and ends on either side of a backyard clothesline. And L.A. playwright Elizabeth Wong takes on the boys' club in her Let the Big Dogs Eat, in which she imagines a golf game between power players Michael Eisner, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Ted Turner.

An exhilarated Wong spoke to me after the show. Commissioned by ATL to write her new short play, she said she jumped at the opportunity to return to the "nurturing place" where she worked four years ago as a dramaturg. "Here they respect and honor the playwright," Wong averred. "It's a great opportunity to be surrounded by creative people who are smart about theatre. Here I really get to strut my stuff!"

Dinner With Friends topped off the second evening, in which Donald Margulies, established with his recent successes Sight Unseen and Collected Stories, continues his careful examination and dissection of human behavior, this time on a domestic level. On paper, the play breaks down as standard done-to-death TV movie fare: two couples, one gets divorced, who remains friends? But what Margulies' careful, tender treatment provides is a dynamic journey into what makes relationships work, and what happens when they don't.

No detail is left out in the Technicolor depiction of Gabe and Karen (Adam Grupper and Linda Purl), the ideal couple. More happily married than anyone has a right to be, they are gourmet cooks, world travellers, work collaborators, informed parents, and brilliant entertainers. Not quite as picture-perfect are longtime friends Beth and Tom (Devora Millman and David Byron), and as the play begins we learn that this marriage, perhaps ill-conceived from the start, is ending. The play goes back and forth in time, covering three seasons in the lives of these friends, as we see how two couples can become such a part of each other's lives that when one piece pulls away, everything else is threatened.

After the performance, a colleague introduced me to Margulies, mentioning that I'm a newlywed; Margulies has been with his wife for 20 years "and counting."

"Fasten your seatbelt," he advised, "and get ready for the ride."

Taking the Plunge

The next day was a switch from the marathon day before, with only one play, William Mastrosimone's Like Totally Wierd. (Due to scheduling conflicts, I wasn't able to see The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek by Kentuckian Naomi Wallace, a poetic glimpse into the lives of poor factory workers during the Depression.) Mastrosimone's newest work was, for me, the festival's biggest surprise. I'd call it a masterpiece.

As Like Totally Wierd opens, we hear the dialogue from a typical "body bag" action thriller and see a lavish home decorated with antiques, works of fine art, and two gleaming Oscars. Into this elegant setting come two teens with skateboards, huge Nikes, and baggy pants, but they hide when they hear someone approaching. It's Hollywood mogul Russ Riegel (a tour de force turn by V Craig Heidenreich), on the cell phone talking deals and stealing story ideas from struggling writers.

When the two boys confront Russ, we learn that these two goofy 15-year-olds from Monrovia have broken into the house to meet the creator and star of their favorite movie, Primordial Rage. Oh, and they have a gun.

The play takes the plunge from there into a terrifying study of our violent society and its glorification in the media. Acting out their favorite action scenes, complete with sound effects and musical cues, the explosive Kevin Blake and Chris Stafford paint a shocking bull's-eye portrait of today's kids. And Mastrosimone's tightly wound construction keeps us uncomfortably laughing, alternately charmed by the boys and repulsed by their actions, which ultimately go way too far by anyone's rules.

Leaving the theatre shaking, I ran into Jon Jory, typically harried but calmer than he had seemed all weekend. I asked him how he felt now that the festival was winding down. (It began Feb. 26, and most plays closed last week; Like Totally Weird continues through Apr. 4.)

"I can't say that I'm sorry it's over," he laughed. "It's all a blur--a mass of details." He gave me a warm, tired smile and was gone.

Touching Down

Back home at LAX, off the flight and waiting for luggage, I ran into a familiar face from the weekend, an executive from Carsey-Werner. It was his sixth time at Humana, he said. He wanted to know if I saw anything that interested me. Anything? I thought to myself. How about everything?

But before I could answer, he told me he'd been terribly disappointed; he thought the plays were, on the whole, a let-down from previous years. His bags arrived, and I was left with a reminder that I should hang onto my own ingenuous first-timer's excitement.

And also, I suppose, a suitable "Welcome to L.A." BS

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