I missed the 40th annual new plays festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville last year—just like I missed the 39 before it. So I made time this spring for the 41st edition of what's officially known as the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Louisville's not that far away, after all, it's never short of bourbon, and the event itself can boast some remarkable stats. For instance: three fest-produced plays have won Pulitzer Prizes (The Gin Game, Crimes of the Heart, and Dinner With Friends), while three more were finalists for it. Playwrights from old master Marsha Norman (Getting Out, 1978) to hot millennials Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Appropriate, 2013) and Lucas Hnath (The Christians, 2014) have had their work shown there.
As a title like Crimes of the Heart suggests, the festival (which ended April 9) isn't known for pushing the envelope. It excels at releasing new scripts into the mainstream. That Hnath play, The Christians, went from Louisville to New York's Playwrights Horizons, and from there to Steppenwolf Theatre; Jacobs-Jenkins's Appropriate had its Chicago premiere at Victory Gardens during the fall following its Humana debut. Louisville, in short, is the place to see tomorrow's subscription-season selections today.
I got a look at five entries during my weekend at 41, along with a dubious bonus selection: an earnest-awful late-night thing called The Many Deaths of Nathan Stubblefield, written by too many hands and performed by the fest's acting apprentices, but notable for having been directed—imaginatively—by Eric Hoff, best-known for his 2012 staging of Hit the Wall, the first success by Chicago-based wunderkind Ike Holter.
The play I most look forward to finding on some local company's season roster is Chelsea Marcantel's Airness, a sweet-natured, even cornball, look at competitive air guitarists. There's a plot involving newbie Nina, who's got ulterior motives for joining the coast-to-coast round of regional competitions leading to the national championship. But the beating heart of the piece is the tiny counterculture inhabited by her oddball peers—a band of losers with exalted noms-de-air like Golden Thunder, Shreddy Eddy, Facebender, and Cannibal Queen.
Given the conventions governing stories like this one, it goes without saying that the airistas are hiding their hurt and doing their best to evade adulthood, that Nina will find an unexpected sense of community among them, and that reigning champ D Vicious will get his comeuppance for selling out by endorsing Sprite. What makes Airness's banalities easy to take is the luxurious amount of room Marcantel opens up around them, to be filled with dignity and delight. Her characters may be amusing, but they're not punch lines. They've got self-awareness and honor—plus righteous skills. The next-biggest pleasure after getting to know them is watching them go creatively nuts to tracks by groups ranging from the Ramones to Lynyrd Skynyrd. The D Vicious in Meredith McDonough's fest production, by the way, was Brian Quijada, who kicked ass doing "Crazy Train" and can be seen now at Victory Gardens in his own autobiographical solo show, Where Did We Sit on the Bus?. One of Quijada's Airness castmates was an ass kicker on a whole other level: Matt Burns, the actual reigning U.S. air guitar champion.
Nothing else I saw offered the unmitigated pleasure of Airness, but a few will certainly enjoy Louisville afterlives if only because they fit neatly into the Trump-era imperative for socially aware programming at American theaters. The most successful of them is Cry It Out, Molly Smith Metzler's diagrammatic but also smart and pointed disquisition on the status of women in the current economic order, as illustrated by three young white mothers of three distinct classes, residing in close proximity to one another on Long Island. Jessie is a corporate lawyer whose people-pleasing inclinations appear to have put her at odds with her jugular-biting profession. Loving her maternity leave, she longs to remain on the mommy track. In the duplex across from her lives Lina, a hospital worker full of earthy prole bonhomie, also taking maternity leave but lacking the means even to fantasize about staying home for good. In the (presumably brooding) mansion on the bluff above them seethes haute jewelry designer Adrian, locked in a war with her equally successful husband (Mitchell, the only man we see) over how to handle life with a newborn.
Remarkably little actually happens in Cry It Out, and more often than not it plays out as a contemporary comedy of manners (the difference between Jessie and Lina in a nutshell: Jessie read the novel Room, Lina saw the movie). But by the time she's done, Metzler has made a compelling case for the notion that, when it comes to motherhood these days, there's no such thing as a good choice.
As for the other three shows I saw: Basil Kreimendahl's energetically goofy We're Gonna Be Okay is, as the title implies, less a play than a theatrical act of wish fulfillment, positing gender fluidity triumphant during the Cuban missile crisis. (This just in: Chicago's American Theater Company plans to produce it next winter.) Jorge Ignacio Cortiña's Recent Alien Abductions attempts to explore a psyche devastated by abuse, only to be undermined by narrative implausibilities and poor structural choices. Tasha Gordon-Solomon's I Now Pronounce, finally, constitutes the only complete disaster: a failed farce in which a rabbi dies cute while presiding over a wedding. You can judge for yourself, though, since somebody's likely to stage even that. v