American playwrights handle comedy better than tragedy, at least if this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville is any gauge. Richard Strand’s farce of corporate ladderclimbing, The Death of Zukavsky, and Jane Martin’s broad comedy about lady wrestlers, Cementville, were the two high points of the festival, and even of the less successful plays the best moments were always comical ones, not serious.
The still-mysterious Jane Martin, who may or may not be ATL producing director Jon Jory and/or various other people, probably has a hit with Cementville. Tiger, Dani, Netty, and Lessa have been bumped from the coliseum by the ice show and banished to a peeling gym in Cementville, Tennessee, one of pro wrestling’s lower circles of hell. Their promoter, Bigman, has managed to book as surprise challengers the biggest act in the business, two artificially constructed bottled blonde sisters, just out of jail and temporarily barred from the big leagues because of an unfortunate drug conviction and an all-too-public entanglement with the mayor of Los Angeles. Things go from bad to worse as the crowd turns ugly, as Dottie and Dolly’s manager Mother Crocker threatens mob retaliation, and as the upstaged Dani (a/k/a Tarzana) and Lessa lose their cool.
On the negative side, all the humor is very bawdy, and all the Southern characters are exaggerated into a Harry Crews-ish mad-cracker extreme. We are supposed to accept that the infamous Dottie and Dolly are World Wrestling Federation material, but the bodysuits with tassels that they sport would never make it past the censors on TV. Nobody’s ever accused pro wrestling of being in good taste, but it is a little cleaner than this. When in an effort to placate the “rubes” Mother Crocker sends out Dani and Nola to strip, we’ve descended to the Jell-O circuit.
That aside, the play is funny, and the colorful hick speech (the one-armed paperhanger-isms) is original hick speech. Only the end, in which a retired black boxer gives a long speech on the purer days of pro-sport, seems unfinished or at least inconclusive, but after letting the four winds out of Mount Haemus it is no mean feat to get them back in again.
This kind of depiction of Southern life is irritating to many Southerners, conscious as they are that the one area of the country in which children are still taught manners is invariably represented on stage and screen by a foulmouthed Bubba. They should take comfort in the knowledge that the South is perhaps the only section of the country left with enough of an identity for there to be something identifiable to laugh at.
Richard Strand’s farce The Death of Zukavsky should also see several more productions. In it three employees of a large corporation find themselves vying for a manager’s job when Zukavsky shows up dead for one morning’s meeting. You could see the end coming, but you really didn’t care, because the interim jokes are original and the play’s construction wonderfully tight. Especially funny was a scene in which A.C. Tattums explains to his competitor Anne Desmond why she will never go higher than level four—because she has too many moral scruples about taking money. ATL regulars Bill McNulty and Ray Fry were particularly good as, respectively, A.C. and his boss, Mr. Marlino, and Rod McLachlan (Barry) did very well as precisely the sort of dense apple-polisher who inevitably rises to the top.
Also well received was Shirley Lauro’s A Piece of My Heart, about the war experiences and subsequent lives of five woman who served in Vietnam. Originally produced at the Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays, it is timely to say the least. The message, as though anyone could miss it, is summed up by Leeann’s “I want to never fight another war” at the end of act II: in the interim an intelligence officer’s prediction of the Tet offensive is discounted (because she’s black, or a woman, or perhaps because she writes “Chinese” when she means “Vietnamese”), a sweet Christian girl from Erie sees her boyfriend blown up in front of her eyes, and a Texas teenager suckered into singing for the USO is assaulted by some American officers. On their return only Sissy from Erie seems stable, and she ends up with Agent Orange disease, as does her little girl. Nobody escapes, most especially not the audience, which is put through the wringer along with Sissy and Whitney and Leeann.
Songs such as “Proud Mary” and “Down by the Riverside” help to complete the utter schmaltzification of war, as does the second act’s de rigueur group therapy number, during which each woman finally breaks down completely. From the sniffles I heard, so did the audience. Perhaps the final blow is the fact that A Piece of My Heart is a docudrama—neither fish nor fowl—based heavily on Keith Walker’s book of Vietnam vet interviews of the same title. To read the book is to read an interesting oral history about an exhilarating and terrible time, and to hear the stories of women who by and large have gleaned all the good they can from the experience, worked through the bad, and who are living relatively happy lives. (One mother of a child with Agent Orange disease is understandably still battling.) To see the play you would think every woman came back a basket case.
The worst embellishment of a life seems to be the character of Mary Jo. Her original, Bobbi Jo Pettit, found her five months of entertaining for the troops in 1967 hard but also so rewarding that she went back in ’71. She speaks of getting dangerously isolated in a shack for four days, but surviving it unharmed, and says she was treated with care and respect by the troops she played for. When the fictionalized Mary Jo is accidentally abandoned in a shack with her band for four days, she is raped by a group of Marines she had welcomed as her deliverers. (This comes out in the group therapy session—of course.)
Lee Blessing’s Down the Road is a draw. Best known for his Broadway success A Walk in the Woods, Blessing’s latest play concerns a true-crime team assigned to a Ted Bundy-like serial killer to help him tell his story. As the interviews progress both husband and wife start to question the morality of what they’re doing, and Blessing skillfully traces their regression from control to submission, as they realize that the book of their career is at the mercy of this murderer. Their apologies to him are painful to watch. Unfortunately, despite all the breast-beating about morality, what we have here is one more exploitation of horror, and Blessing’s craftsmanship and the good performances put in by Mark Shannon, Bernadette Sullivan, and Markus Flanagan cannot quite redeem the play.
Every year it seems there is one painful failure and this year it was the festival’s only commissioned play, Paul Walker’s A Passenger Train of Sixty-One Coaches. Walker is a true believer in experimental drama and has been quoted as saying that any technique outside the theatrical mainstream is fair game. What that translates to, in this play about Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice in late 19th-century New York, is one long third-person narrative with the lines broken up among the various characters. There are no scenes, per se, and everything, right down to the casting, is heavily ironic (Mr. Walker directed this play as well). Comstock’s mother is played by an Asian actress, his doomed daughter by a young black actress, his adopted daughter by a man, George Bernard Shaw by a woman—no doubt if Mr. Walker had been able to get a horse to whinny the lines he would have had Cananero III up there as Comstock’s wife. Anthony Comstock is hardly a sympathetic subject, and as a National Endowment for the Arts grantee Walker no doubt is especially sensitive on the topic of vice suppression. But the cacophony of Sixty-One Coaches is such that in the end you almost feel sorry for Comstock’s memory, tossed around the stage in his underwear as he has been for an hour and a half.
Also experimental and also unsuccessful was Eduardo Muchado’s story of the nationalization by Castro of his family’s bus company, In the Eye of the Hurricane. Diane D’Aquila as Manuela was wonderful but could not save a play that was a campy tragedy, complete with a 52-year-old homosexual brother who salsaed when upset. Mario (Christopher McCann) looked upon his nephew as fair game, and the nationalization as his personal revenge upon his clearly much more capable brother-in-law for taking precedence in the family. None of this is really supposed to disturb us, or so I gathered, but if this is what passes for black humor in Cuba and Miami, then it does not translate.
Shem Bitterman’s Night-side, about a florist’s descent into madness following a crime she may or may not have witnessed from her shop window, is about strong stuff and hence dramatic. But there is no beauty to the language and no point—other than to portray madness—to the play.
All these plays were invited. As for the ten-minute play contest winners, there were two this year: Neal Bell’s Out the Window and John Glore’s What She Found There. Both were very workmanlike; Out the Window is a nice short about a man recovering from an accident, still imprisoned in a wheelchair, who wakes one morning after a particularly heady party to find himself stranded atop the kitchen table. John Glore’s play is built around the conceit of Alice’s doppelgänger passing through the looking glass into our world just as Alice goes through to hers. Anagrammatical Celia (played very well by Jennifer Hubbard) has just had a fling with Lou, a truck driver, and is trying to explain herself and her point of view to a man who has picked up more than he bargained for. She has some wonderful passages about her world-in-reverse. Without the sex it would be a beautiful short play, and with any luck Glore should be a playwright to watch for.
Once again ATL’s regular company members put in some of the best performances of the festival, partly because they are generally very well cast in these productions (as was Adale O’Brien as Netty in Cementville, the wrestling Pajama Mama “who puts ’em to sleep”). There seemed to be a general consensus that this was one of ATL’s better festival years, and if so there is no doubt it is because Jon Jory has left off commissioning novelists and returned to asking for plays from playwrights. Or perhaps the main problem was the idea of commissioning anybody—of recently commissioned plays only Romulus Linney’s 2 was outstanding, and this year the festival’s worst production was its one commission. For next year David Henry Hwang, the author of M. Butterfly, has agreed to write a play on the subject of interracial marriage, and ATL is still hoping to get something out of novelist E.L. Doctorow. Only time will tell whether Jory was right to bet on either.