Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays, now in its 14th year, has had its up and downs. But some local grumblings notwithstanding, this year’s festival was much better than last, with two excellent plays and only one real miss. Promised works from Slaves of New York author Tama Janowitz and novelist E.L. Doctorow did not materialize—probably a blessing. ATL has returned to commissioning plays from playwrights, a move that has greatly improved the festival. Such was ATL’s luck that even this season’s one playwriting novice, novelist Joyce Carol Gates, whose books leave me cold, came forth with two very creditable one-acts.
The most controversial piece was Romulus Linney’s treatment of the trial and death of Hermann Goering. Entitled 2—because Goering was Hitler’s second-in-command—the play is set in the American prison in Nuremberg during Goering’s trial for war crimes. Played very well by William Duff-Griffin, Linney’s Goering gets the better of his American commandant, proves so winning to his Irish psychiatrist that the Irishman must be replaced, wins over the lieutenant and sergeant set to guard him, and restores the confidence of his ambivalent German lawyer. In court he bests the American prosecutor, Robert Jackson, in an active pursuit of his own defense. Even his Jewish psychiatrist (the American replacement), who naturally hates the man, comes to feel a grudging respect for Goering by the end of the play. The audience is likewise seduced—despite even the atrocities films shown in Act II. The night I saw 2 Duff-Griffin received a standing ovation: as a friend dryly remarked, the playwright had made his point.
With the exception of the psychiatrist, the Americans do not come out well, in what is made to appear as an elaborate show trial; even the execution orders have been typed up two months in advance. Robert Jackson’s dream of outlawing war looks even less realistic now than it did at the time. Needless to say all these unpleasant ironies leave the theater-goer squirming in his seat. Given its treatment of the subject, it is a real question whether 2 will get the wide staging it deserves. Despite its merits and Linney’s reputation (he is the author of, among other plays, Holy Ghosts, about snakehandling fundamentalists), a play that depicts a three-dimensional Goering is as likely to succeed as a portrayal of Abraham Lincoln as a well-intentioned but ambitious politician. Americans prefer their villains black and their heroes spanking white.
A play that should have no trouble at all traveling is Joan Ackermann-Blount’s Zara Spook and Other Lures, about three women ofF to a Bass ‘n’ Gal fishing tournament, in New Mexico, and the relations of Evelyn with her importunate boyfriend, and of Ramona with her estranged husband. Evelyn’s boyfriend has surreptitiously made her pregnant, and Ramona’s husband keeps shooting at her, and neither man will let the poor women fish—I think this is what they call a situation comedy, but it works. Despite some flaws (a melodramatic rattlesnake bite and an extraneous yuppie hitchhiker) the play is funny and very winning. Lines such as “some folks have the cookies, some folks have the jar” as delivered in context by this assortment of oddballs more than make up for the loose ends.
There were some equally funny moments in Jane Martin’s new collection of monologues. Vital Signs. Jane Martin emerged in 1982 as the reclusive author—emerged is the wrong word—of the successful Talking With, another collection of short pieces, and despite nine years of relative fame no lady nor a shred of evidence of any lady has come to light. General opinion seems to be that “Jane Martin” is in fact ATL producing director Jon Jory, but other names crop up: ATL’s longtime company member Adale O’Brien; ATL’s former director of volunteers, Judy Miller; Lily Tomlin’s collaborator, Jane Wagner; even Jon Jory’s ex-wife, actress Lee Anne Fahey. Some lean toward the committee theory, involving some of the above and also Susan Rowland, another former ATL staff member. Martin’s agent is Alexander Speer, ATL’s administrative director, leriding further credence to the belief that Jane Martin is pseudonymous rather than merely hiding. After all, even J.D. Salinger occasionally gets photographed.
To return to the work: there was a good bit of humor and some ten-minute tragedies, with the former generally better than the latter. There was a good New Age parody, a wonderful monologue about honeyclimbers (harvesting wild bee honey with the help of smoke and faith), and an equally good satire on modern psychology in a piece about a woman whose personality test has proved she has no personality at all. I enjoy Jane Martin, whoever she is. My only difficulty with her is that she doesn’t write plays (with one unsuccessful exception), and however good the hors d’oeuvres I miss the entree.
But at least Jane Martin isn’t pretending to create a whole, as Jane Anderson did in her very unsatisfactory play about Matisse. Warned in the program that The Pink Studio is “pure invention” and “not meant in any way to be an accurate portrayal of the life of Henri Matisse,” the audience gets instead a series of scenes built around some of his paintings, and meant to illustrate how Matisse might have come to paint the green vase before a patterned curtain, or his disappointed wife sitting in a white dress and black stockings on a veranda that looks out over the sea. The actors did not have much to work with—not even history. The whole thing was reminiscent of that third-grade exercise in vocabulary building, in which you take ten new words the teacher gives you and write a story with them. It reeked of a playwriting class assignment, and as such is probably a good idea. But who goes to a concert to hear scales?
I had the same trouble with The Swan, Elizabeth Egloffs short play about a woman who takes in a wounded swan, which turns into a man and becomes her lover. Leda, incubi, and the novel Mrs. Caliban (in which a woman falls in love with a monster) all came to mind, but the play didn’t go anywhere.
The other short plays, Joyce Carol Oates’s two one-acts, were much more substantial. Tone Clusters concerned a couple being taped for television and asked questions by a disembodied voice about their 22-year-old son’s murder of a teenager. Based on a real incident that happened on Long Island, and as slightly futuristically staged (and very well) by Steven Albrezzi, it rises above its cliched premise, that to lift up the seeming rock of middle-class life is to find only little white grubs.
Miss Oates was lucky in her casting. Adale O’Brien was excellent as the bewildered and grieving mother in Tone Clusters, as was Beth Dixon as a middle-aged feminist trying to deal with her increasingly manic elderly mother in The Eclipse. Dixon, a topnotch actress, gave the best performance of the festival, and The Eclipse was an interesting investigation into the conflicts between a woman’s public life and her mother’s need for care; like Tone Clusters its subject matter comes right out of the newspapers.
Last and least comes Ellen McLaughlin’s Infinity’s House. Ostensibly about “the bomb” and Oppenheimer’s angst and with a historical parade of characters ranging from German settlers lost in the Humboldt desert to Chinese railroad workers, it went nowhere, and even with some last-minute cuts went nowhere for two and one-half hours. Since the play wasn’t even commissioned by the festival, but by the South Coast Repertory, and has been previously staged elsewhere, ATL doesn’t even have the excuse of having to produce what it had commissioned. What is there to say about a drama in which the author acts the part of a deranged mute, in a Freudian slip bit of symbolism?
The (I hope) trend away from commissioning novelists to do plays, a practice that has so often backfired at ATL, was noted above; other trends include more nudity (male and female—in The Swan, where it could be justified by the storyline and in The Pink Studio, where the appeal was more clearly to prurient interests. There is the further difficulty that ATL used a young female intern for a stark-naked role: the eminence of the festival, and the number of directors and casting agents and talent scouts who come, offer a great temptation to a young actor to take a part she may later regret. Also I’m a prude). One must note as well that the full-length play contest that originated in 1978, and that became a one-act play contest in 1986, is now a ten-minute play contest for 1991. I think ATL will continue to commission new and often good plays, but it will be only from established playwrights (and novelists and journalists), and discovering a Beth Henley or a John Pielmeier ex nihilo as happened in the past is not the same as discovering that Joyce Carol Gates can also do drama. And I wish it were different.
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