It isn't uncommon to look at the Humana Festival of New American Plays lineup, get excited about a new work from a familiar author, and then walk away deflated by an effort that wasn't all it could have been — or maybe wasn't even near it.
This year, the marquee names were Gina Gionfriddo and Lee Blessing, well-known writers with solid résumés of stage hits.
And it is exhilarating to report that the results were, respectively, a masterpiece and a great play.
Gionfriddo's Becky Shaw was the pièce de résistance at the festival, which wrapped up March 30 at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
It is a play that has everything going on: witty banter, a compelling story and wise observations about the human condition.
It is not until the standing ovation dies down that we realize Becky Shaw has been a long journey.
The play, directed by Peter DuBois, starts in a tense hotel room. After her father's death, Suzanna (Mia Barron) and her mother, Susan (Janis Dardaris), are locked in a bitter argument about Susan's financial status and new boy-toy. Attempting to mediate is Max (David Wilson Barnes), the financial planner who was taken in by Susan and Suzanna's family after his mother died when he was 10. The scene ends with Susan storming out and Max and Suzanna consummating their relationship.
Fast-forward a year, and Suzanna is married ... to Andrew (Davis Duffield), a guy she met on a ski trip that Max told her to take so she could heal from her father's death. Andrew and Suzanna have set Max up on a date with a woman named Becky Shaw (Annie Parisse). The moment we see Becky, we know this will not go well for perfectionist Max. Becky is a flighty 35-year-old living the life of an aimless high school graduate. But she also shows an early knack for cutting to the heart of situations, avoiding a lot of the analysis that Suzanna piles on.
That's the first act. Act 2 twists and turns several times, coming to a surprising, but surprisingly real, ending. It also makes us think a lot about the characters and how they interacted along the way.
Max was at many moments a staggering jerk. Casting him correctly will be a real key in future productions, because we need to maintain some sympathy for him for the play to work.
Suzanna and Andrew are good folks, but it is a surface goodness, and Gionfriddo makes us contemplate how useful it is.
Becky Shaw is the best exploration of relationships and emotions at Humana since Donald Margulies' Dinner With Friends, which came out of the 1998 festival and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
"Great Falls' outstanding
Blessing's Great Falls was also an outstanding and searingly honest play.
Directed by Lucie Tiberghien, it is the story of a man (Tom Nelis) who commandeers his ex-stepdaughter (Halley Wegryn Gross) for a cross-country drive in an attempt to reconcile with her after his infidelity caused him to break up with her mother. It takes a while to burn away the acid of their early conversations, to get to some meaningful exchanges and a conclusion that, like that in Shaw, feels honest.
Great Falls, Becky Shaw and newcomer Carly Mensch's terrific All Hail Hurricane Gordo created a overall theme of profoundly damaged people at this year's Humana Festival. Max and Becky both suffered humiliating, staggering rejections that are keys to their characters. Pretty much the same was true for Gordo's Chaz and Gordon, brothers who were abandoned by their parents in a parking lot.
In this trio, this year's Humana Festival gave us three solid plays that deserve lives in theaters across the country.
A little less noteworthy
Where Humana came up short was in areas where it had excelled in recent outings: innovation and plays specific to new technology.
Marc Bamuthi Joseph's the break/s was billed as a look at the history of hip-hop, but it came across as a blurry portrait of music, identity and memoir augmented by some cool dancing and amateurish video.
Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom was the most intriguing idea on paper: A video game set in a cookie-cutter suburb becomes manifest in a real neighborhood where the kids are addicted to it. But Jennifer Haley wasn't able to pull the numerous ideas in her script and the gimmick together into a satisfying whole.
This Beautiful City had much to recommend it. The New York-based troupe The Civilians, which creates works based on interviews with people in specific places or situations, wrote the play about American evangelical Christianity and its unofficial capital, Colorado Springs, Colo. It scored in its authentic portrayals of contemporary worship and ministry, and it arrived at keen observations of the evangelical movement's inherent flaws and why it has succeeded. But its preachiness against faith was too detectable to be the objective observation it purported to be. It also needed some editing to trim its 2½ -hour length.
File City and Neighborhood under ”need some work.“
Still, Humana 2008 gave us three complete works ready for the road and even some awards consideration. In Louisville in March, that's a very good batting average.