Friday, April 4, 2008

Playwrights enter Kentucky derby 'Becky,' 'City' shine as Humana fest blossoms

by Godon Cox

A blind date gone awry and a town full of evangelical Christians had auds buzzing in Kentucky.

Gina Gionfriddo's "Becky Shaw" and the Civilians' "This Beautiful City" emerged as the productions to watch at the Humana Fest of New American Plays, the annual event at Actors Theater of Louisville that draws legiters from around the country to check out the lineup.

"Becky," which revolves around an attempt to matchmake a merciless money manager and the needy young woman of the title, and "Beautiful City," a docu-play about Colorado Springs, were two of a six-play slate that, unlike the topically minded 2007 fest, skewed heavily toward family drama. Both shows are already headed toward Gotham berths, while others in the lineup are mapping out future lives with varying degrees of certainty.

Fest marks the second time Gionfriddo has been one of Humana's hot properties, following the buzzed-about 2004 preem of her play "After Ashley" (which landed in a starry production at the Vineyard the following year).

In "Becky Shaw," that blind date wreaks havoc in the lives of both the potential couple and the married couple who set them up. The play proves a big, wittily articulate show whose sprawling thematic reach encompasses everything from class and race to the emotional cost of compassion.

Both seriously ambitious and smoothly entertaining, Gionfriddo's sharp and funny script is peopled with full-bodied characters the thesps at Humana palpably enjoyed tackling. David Wilson Barnes, achieving a nuanced brand of ruthlessness as finance guy Max, nabbed the most attention in Peter DuBois' well-acted production.

As the show moves compellingly along, it becomes clear Gionfriddo isn't sure precisely which story she's telling, a flaw that renders the play's final scene unsatisfying. But even if that problem isn't solved in the future by judicious honing, "Becky Shaw" remains a hearty piece of theater. So it's no surprise that producers, both of the commercial and nonprofit variety, are said to be already circling, with a stint in Gotham seemingly assured.

The New York appearance of "This Beautiful City," the latest reality-based offering from the Civilians, is already set: The show will play the Vineyard in early 2009 after a run at Center Theater Group in L.A. Downtown troupe the Civilians already has an Off Broadway following -- their show "Gone Missing" recently ended a commercial run, while another, "Paris Commune," just began perfs at the Public.

After Humana, "Beautiful City" moves to D.C.'s Studio Theater, which co-produced.

With text culled from interviews (shaped into a script by helmer Steve Cosson and Jim Lewis) and mock-Christian rock songs by Michael Friedman, "Beautiful City" looks at the devout populace of Colorado Springs and how they coped with the 2006 scandal involving New Life Church founder Ted Haggard, who exited his post after former hustler Mike Jones charged him with a longstanding sex-and-drugs relationship.

Clocking in at 2½ hours, the production could use some trimming and focusing. But the material is fascinating and the excellent cast, many of whom conducted the original interviews, effortlessly transforms into a persuasive array of Colorado Springs inhabitants.

Best title of the fest goes to "Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom," Jennifer Haley's tale of a survival horror vidgame that gradually takes over the lives of the families in a well-off subdivision. Playing like a nifty episode of "The Twilight Zone," the story builds to an affectingly gruesome finale, and director Kip Fagan creates a clever stage language for the moments when two realities, virtual and actual, overlap.

With its small-scale tech demands and four-person ensemble, "Neighborhood" seems a likely candidate for legit troupes hoping to benefit from the play's youthful, tech-savvy appeal.

Also tapping Humana's familial drama vein were Lee Blessing's "Great Falls" and Carly Mensch's "All Hail Hurricane Gordo."

"Great Falls," about a man's attempts to connect with his teen stepdaughter during a road trip, has its irritating fillips -- the two-hander's characters are named Monkey Man and Bitch -- but is enough of a traditional character-driven drama that the show could easily get some regional play. No future productions have been set, although another Blessing play, "Body of Water," will bow Off Broadway at Primary Stages in September.

Many legiters were turned off by "Gordo," a manic depiction of a mentally unstable young man and the uptight brother who cares for him. But Mensch, a young scribe still in Juilliard's graduate playwriting program, has some momentum going: Her play "Len, Asleep in Vinyl" gets a run at Second Stage Uptown this summer.

Of all the Humana shows, Marc Bamuthi Joseph's "the break/s" has its future most clearly laid out for it. Dynamically performed by Joseph, the legit-dance-spoken word piece about hip-hop, racial identity and a breakup has more than a year of arthouse appearances ahead of it, including stints at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis this month, the Spoleto Fest in May and the Kennedy Center and Gotham's Skirball Center in September.