Tuesday, April 1, 2008

New Plays Exploring Difficult Relations


LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The schisms in American society, both macro and micro, were on vivid display at this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theater of Louisville. The divisions between the religious right and the secular left, the tech-fueled widening of the generation gap and the ever-relevant question of what makes a modern marriage function smoothly were among the themes explored by playwrights at the festival.

Gina Gionfriddo’s “Becky Shaw,” an absorbing comedy-drama about a blind date that threatens to become a marriage-devouring black hole, was the festival’s heat-generating event, surely destined for New York and beyond. Ms. Gionfriddo’s “After Ashley” had its debut at the festival in 2004 and was later seen in New York, while her lively if contrived black comedy “U.S. Drag” just concluded a run Off Broadway. The new play marks an impressive stride for a writer with a saw-toothed wit and a seductive interest in exploring the rewards and responsibilities of emotional interdependence.

Devoted yentas and their grateful customers beware: “Becky Shaw” depicts an innocuous set-up gone spectacularly awry. We do not meet the toxic title character until midway through the first act, which begins in a New York hotel room where Suzanna (Mia Barron) listlessly mourns her father’s death, while Max (David Wilson Barnes), more or less adopted by Suzanna’s parents when he was 10, tries to shake her out of it.

He is also trying to plug the holes in the family’s financial affairs, left in disarray by Suzanna’s father, possibly because his business manager was also his lover. Suzanna’s mother, Susan (Janis Dardaris), an imperious woman whose multiple sclerosis has not stopped her from taking up with a much younger and disreputable man, remains as impervious to Max’s warnings of dire economic straits as Suzanna is to his tough-love approach to healing her grief.

Max’s role as the family fixer takes an unexpected turn at the end of this crackling first scene. Ms. Gionfriddo, a writer for “Law and Order,” has acquired a savvy aptitude for the deftly sprung plot twist. Firecrackers of revelation explode every few minutes in “Becky Shaw,” which is almost as quotably funny as Broadway’s scabrous “August: Osage County” — and that’s saying plenty.

Most of the choicest aperçus come from the superciliously pursed lips of Max, played with chilly, magnetic allure by Mr. Barnes in the festival’s standout performance. (It would be a shame if he were not allowed to reprise it should the play have a future life; Mr. Barnes was also in “The Scene” by Theresa Rebeck at this festival two years ago, a play in a similar vein that was mostly recast with higher-profile actors — to deleterious effect — when it came to New York.)

Max is cynical about all things romantic, and defines marriage as “two people coming together because each has something the other wants.” Suzanna, who is studying to become a therapist, at least likes to believe that she’s a true believer in love. By the second scene she is happily married to Andrew (Davis Duffield), a good-hearted would-be novelist scraping a living by working at a law firm. There he meets the lovely but lonely title character (Annie Parisse), whom they hope to pair off with the likewise single Max.

This is a bit like suggesting that a snake mate with a mouse, or so it first appears when the nervous Becky arrives for their first date glaringly overdressed and emotionally naked. But Ms. Gionfriddo keeps us guessing about the character (ditsy or wily? victim, manipulator or a little of both?) as divided allegiances — Suzanna’s to Max, Andrew’s to Becky — put a strain on the marriage and expose unexpected vulnerabilities.

Intricately plotted and studded with scathing one-liners, “Becky Shaw” also burrows into the ideas it engages about moral, intellectual and financial compatibility in romance, as well as the level of emotional commitment various relationships require. On the down side, virtually every scene would benefit from some pruning, and the title character is the least convincing in the play, at this point more a plot device than a credible woman. (It does not help that the director, Peter DuBois, and Ms. Parisse, who may simply be too gorgeous for the role, don’t seem to have settled on a consistent style for the performance.)

Still, “Becky Shaw” is a thoroughly enjoyable play, suspenseful, witty and infused with an unsettling sense of the potential for psychic disaster inherent in almost any close relationship.

The other significant show at the festival this year was “This Beautiful City,” an ambitious, talent-stretching production from the New York troupe the Civilians. Written by Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis, directed by Mr. Cosson, and with songs by Michael Friedman, this collagelike revue addresses the rise of the evangelical Christian movement.

Fans of this gifted troupe may be surprised at the sincerity — and generosity — of the company’s approach to material that a hip New York theater company might be expected to put across with a wink and a wry smile. The production is close kin to “The Laramie Project,” the affecting documentary drama from Moisés Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Company about the cultural repercussions of the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student in Wyoming.

As in their previous shows “Gone Missing” and “(I Am) Nobody’s Lunch,” the text is largely drawn from interviews conducted by the company. The timing of the Civilians’ visit to Colorado Springs, where mega-churches are as numerous as McDonald’s franchises, was propitious. They were apparently on the scene when Ted Haggard, pastor of the New Life Church and a leader in the movement, was forced to step down after he was linked to a male prostitute.

But “This Beautiful City” is not a polemical exposé in the Michael Moore mold. It is a thoughtful, exploratory foray into a world that, as the interviews make clear, was alien territory to the show’s creators. Voices of faithful believers are juxtaposed with those of critics of the movement’s power and its prerogatives. The history of the evangelical explosion in Colorado Springs is presented from various perspectives, as is the controversy over the powerful sway evangelicals supposedly came to wield at the Air Force Academy there.

Playing several roles each, the half-dozen leading performers — some Civilians regulars, some not — are all superb. None stoop to caricature, even when portraying characters on the far side of religious fanaticism. The fresh-faced Stephen Plunkett is a natural as a New Life pastor leading a youth group, and later as Mr. Haggard’s son Marcus, who addresses his father’s troubles in a speech that is surprisingly moving and eloquent. Marsha Stephanie Blake brings down the house as a fiery preacher who takes over a major black church when its pastor is forced out after he discloses his homosexuality.

“This Beautiful City” could use some editing too. The scenes set at a small church called the Revolutionary House of Prayer consume excessive stage time, and the ending is seriously flat. Mr. Friedman’s pleasant but unexceptional songs don’t add as much as they usually do to Civilians shows, perhaps because most of them are straightforward imitations of bland, folk-inflected Christian pop. You naturally miss the Cole Porteresque wordplay and sardonic humor of his best compositions.

The rest of the work at the festival varied from respectable to — well, to quote an irresistible assessment from a man I overheard fleeing one show at intermission, “not good is much too generous.”

On the respectable front Lee Blessing, the elder statesman among the participating playwrights, provided a solid if sleepy two-hander in “Great Falls.” Directed by Lucie Tiberghien and starring Tom Nelis and Halley Wegryn Gross as a stepfather and his stepdaughter on a road trip, the play is a well-observed but unspectacular voyage into familiar territory, perhaps fixated a little too exclusively on the sexuality of the young woman, a glib wiseacre in the “Juno” mold (and facing a similar problem).

If the title “Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom” sounds like something you’d fire up on a PlayStation, that is entirely intentional. This play by Jennifer Haley uses a kill-the-zombies video game as a template for a thriller about the growing distance between distracted, self-absorbed parents and indulged, alienated teenagers in suburban America.

Ms. Haley writes credible dialogue for her younger characters — a delicate mission often bungled — but this material ill suits the stage. When worlds virtual and real eventually must collide, the result is a dramatic fizzle, although the production, directed by Kip Fagan, was convincingly acted and sleekly if simply designed.

The divided soul of a black man is exposed in “the break/s,” written and performed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and directed by Michael John Garcés. Mr. Joseph is a naturally captivating dancer, moving with transfixing grace at any number of speeds. The performance is gloriously eloquent in its physicality, but less engaging when Mr. Joseph stops shredding the air with his limbs and simply delivers the opaque and meandering text about his various cultural travels.

I have been casting about for something charitable to say about “All Hail Hurricane Gordo,” a comedy by Carly Mensch (still a playwriting fellow at Juilliard) about two kooky, emotionally stunted brothers (Matthew Dellapina and Patrick James Lynch); one kooky, emotionally stunted young woman (Tracee Chimo); and a refreshingly well-adjusted white rabbit (name unavailable).

Perhaps I’ll just say that I loved the rabbit, and leave it at that.