Actors Theatre of Louisville started its new play festival 20 years ago—that’s a long life in the American theater, and the Humana Festival of New American Plays achieved institution status several seasons back. Unfortunately, the festival is now a little like a fully endowed congregation that no longer has to look to itself to underwrite its annual operating budget. The altar flowers are beautiful, but the spirit is wanting.

There were two good full-length plays this year and some entertaining shorts, and ATL deserves credit for regularly producing new work. Most theaters cannot, or think they cannot, afford to. But there is more good work out there than ATL is finding, and I am convinced a festival that has been so-so in recent years could be so much better. Part of the problem may be in the way the festival is organized. ATL’s practice now is to commission plays from established (or at least working) playwrights, and well known journalists or novelists. That sounds like a good idea, and sometimes works, but more often it does not. This year, for example, the biggest names wrote the shortest plays, some of them nice but sketches at best. Also this year, as has happened before, one of the best plays (One Flea Spare) was originally produced elsewhere, which means ATL cannot take the credit for fostering it.

Every season I wish once again that ATL would return to its original practice of holding an open contest—keeping some commissions, but spending some of the Humana grant to hire a legion of part-time readers to cull the large number of plays the theater would surely receive. I am convinced that out of this gargantuan slush pile would come a much stronger festival. Plus ATL would once again discover new playwrights—something the theater cannot really claim anymore, despite all its good work, its well-earned prestige, and all the hours and sweat its staff put into producing a dozen plays at once.

One of the best pieces this year was by Prospect, Kentucky, native Naomi Wallace. I wish it had not taken several London productions for anyone in the States to take interest in her work, but never mind. One Flea Spare is set in England in 1665 during the plague. A child and a seaman break into a wealthy merchant couple’s house, forcing them all to live together for a month under quarantine. The husband patronizes the sailor and puts him to work, scrubbing the boards with vinegar against infection, while the wife (played by the excellent Peggy Cowles) falls in love with him. The fey child, a servant girl masquerading as her dead master’s dead daughter, focuses on surviving.

It is an ugly, sexual story about class and death, with a young actor playing (to my discomfort) a child that knows too much too early. But the play is redeemed by Ms. Wallace’s skill. She is a powerful writer with beautiful if sometimes terrifying imagery, who has written a good play with One Flea Spare and may someday write a great one.

The festival’s other full-length success was by Joan Ackermann, a former Sports Illustrated writer who is now co-artistic director of the Mixed Company theater in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The Batting Cage concerns sisters Julianna and Wilson, who have come to St. Augustine to spread the ashes of their third sister, and to grieve in their very different ways. Ackermann has a reporter’s eye for ridiculous detail and has a good track record of quirky comedies (including Zara Spook and Other Lures, set at a bass ‘n’ gal tournament). Unlike too many comic writers, Ackermann is funny, and this play transcends her usual hilarity with a poignancy and seriousness that is very nicely done. Veanne Cox was particularly good as the shopaholic divorcee Julianna, and so was ATL apprentice Justin Hagan, as the hotel room-service waiter (with a barnacle growing in his ear) who befriends her.

Of the shorter pieces, the best included What I Meant Was, by Prelude to a Kiss author Craig Lucas. This play is a Thanksgiving dinner fantasy conversation in which each member of a dysfunctional family actually says what he thinks. John Patrick Shanley (best known for his screenplays Moonstruck and Joe Versus the Volcano) had two one-acts about love and relationships that were slight, but which showed his nice ear for conversation.

There were also two plays I could respect if not like: Jack and Jill by the pseudonymous Jane Martin (who is probably ATL producing director Jon Jory and/or friends and relatives), and an Anne Bogart-and-company created piece called Going, Going, Gone. Martin’s play traces a very modern couple’s troubled relationship over time, and while the piece is well constructed and was skillfully set in ATL’s round Bingham Theater, it is maddening to watch. The two characters are so annoying that it’s impossible to care what happens to them.

Going, Going, Gone is not a play, but a created piece using various “texts” on quantum physics. Anne Bogart, co-director of the Saratoga International Theater Institute, has directed some of my favorite and least favorite theater pieces—among the former the ATL production of Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine , which was superb. Ms. Bogart demands that her actors learn great physical control, and that their body language always convey something other than a literal reading of a line—either adding to or in some cases undercutting their spoken words. She is not a realist; she thinks art should explode life and is always dragging subtext and subconscious out for an airing. She is a very bright woman and fun to hear lecture, and certainly her plays shake a person up. But in this case the “story” of two couples, told by characters who both argued about and personified the new and old physics, entailed a lot of complicated conversation that led not to enlightenment but only, in the end, to wife-swapping. As my friend Tom likes to say, sex belongs in the home. Some censorship might do the extremely talented Ms. Bogart a world of good.

Tony Kushner, whose Angels in America was an enormous critical success, contributed the 20-minute Reverse Transcription, a spoof of this year’s Humana playwrights. It was a funny little bubble of a play with inside jokes. Another commissioned celebrity, New York newspaperman Jimmy Breslin, wrote a ploddingly ironical mini-play about Newt Gingrich’s divorce, which made me feel that even cads deserve to be more wittily skewered on stage. Contract with Jackie was redeemed only by the acting of Divina Cook, who deserves a special award for doing her best to breathe life into two of the festival’s flops—the other being Guillermo Reyes’ Latin soap opera Chilean Holiday. Also disappointing was David Henry Hwang’s short play on his usual subject (he is the author of M. Butterfly), white guilt and Asian/Caucasian relations. In it a Chinese-American street fiddler in New York berates a white yokel from Wisconsin, who ends up being the adopted son of Chinese parents. If Hwang’s argument is that you can choose your culture, I am not buying it.

Finally, last and least, came Elizabeth Dewberry’s Flesh and Blood. Ms. Dewberry has a perfect resume: a B.A. from Vanderbilt and a Ph.D. from Emory, two novels published by Doubleday, a few state art council grants, and a teaching stint at Bread Loaf. Yet Flesh and Blood is one of the worst plays I have ever seen in my life. Her drama, which was not helped by its dispirited cast, begins as a trite family-betrayal story and ends with little sister taking off her shirt and being stabbed to death (curtain!). When I saw the play it was performed without an intermission, and I understood: we’d have fled if given the chance. Oddly enough, the best performance of all was the free one given by ATL’s 20 apprentices, young actors who spend a year at the theater providing long hours of free labor in return for classes and a chance to perform in ATL productions. The group performed monologues staged by apprentice company director Jennifer Hubbard. While some performers were stronger than others, the evening as a whole was terrific, the transitions from piece to piece were wonderfully done, and everyone worked together as a company—something I cannot say of any other festival production. In honor of the Humana Festival’s 20th anniversary, all monologues were taken from previous festival plays, and again and again I was struck by how strong some of the early work was—for example Larry Larson and Levi Lee’s satire Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends (A Final Evening With the Illuminati), in which apprentice Sean McNall was hilarious.

Something tells me writers like Larson and Lee have highly imperfect resumes. They are the kind of people who come out of the woodwork (or the slush pile). It is significant that the best night of the 1996 Humana Festival was acted for free with older work; the festival is calling out for a change. But in a way, that night was heartening for anyone who cares about ATL. It showed that the theater has a strong past to draw on, and for the future a pool of very good young actors.