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The influence of television is obvious in festival of 11 new American plays


Right after the matinee performance of the play in which Elvis Presley showed up as a messenger of God in a toxic dump, Ingmar Bjorksten, the cultural counselor for the Swedish Embassy in Washington, was moved to describe American theater as "very provincial."

The observation was made during a Saturday panel discussion at the 19th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays.

Its members, who also included visitors from China, Croatia and Poland, were seated before the mountainous garbage heap that was the set for Jane Martin's "Middle-Aged White Guys," which had featured a homicidal soldier of fortune, a gun-wielding housewife on Prozac and a corrupt, small-town mayor dressed as Abraham Lincoln.

The panelists remarked that the theaters in their own countries seldom produced anything quite so, well, contemporary as what they had been witnessing.

"I'm amazed at how all the texts here up to now resemble the techniques of television," said Tadeusz Bradecki of the Stary Theater in Cracow. "Even in the mode of editing, the dialogue, the scenes. In Poland, theater is not seen as another version of television. It serves different needs."

It is true that many of the 11 plays in the festival, the most extensive of its kind in this country, seemed to have been written with CNN droning in the background.

On the three stages of the newly renovated complex of buildings that is the Actors Theater of Louisville, much of the dramatic fare seemed poised ominously between yesterday's headlines and tomorrow's apocalypse.

Indeed, the works, written by such estimable playwrights as Marsha Norman, Jose Rivera and Donald Margulies, featured more sensational portents than "Macbeth" and "Julius Caesar" combined.

There were descriptions of dreams of houses flooded in oceans of blood; of rivers drying into "blistered banks"; of "raging floods" consuming Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles, and rabid bats and dead frogs littering the streets of Downtown U.S.A.

The pulse of playwrights

If the festival, organized by Jon Jory, the indefatigable producing director of the Actors Theater, is truly a means of reading the pulse of this country's playwrights, that pulse is as high as a deer's in hunting season. It was easy to sympathize when a character in Ms. Martin's play observed, "There is a case for finishing this century blind drunk."

The festival's "special visitors weekend," which brought together scores of critics mixed with representatives from publishing, theater, television and film companies, began, appropriately, with a play that took the form of a seminar.

That was Jane Anderson's "Tough Choices for a New Century," in which a satanically glib man in a business suit, assisted by his visibly neurotic wife, used slides and demonstrations to present America as a map of potential cataclysms and urged the audience, "Look at disaster as a learning opportunity."

This one-acter, trenchantly performed by Donald L. Marks and Susan Knight, was more a satirical sketch than a proper play. And it unwittingly established a framework for viewing the topical content of the works that followed it in statistical terms.

Consider this sample index: the number of plays with references to the O.J. Simpson trial, three; to natural disasters, four; to mood-elevating drugs, three; to wives who walked out on unsympathetic husbands to find themselves, three; to tabloid television, three. Small wonder that the blurring of individual plays, always a danger at this sort of marathon, assumed dizzying proportions.

At least two of these plays -- Mr. Margulies' "July 7, 1994" and Regina Taylor's "Between the Lines" -- presented television as a force that insidiously warps its viewers' perspective on the world.

They also, as Mr. Bradecki pointed out, used television devices (projected date lines, supertitles and the freezing and repetition of action) to make this point.

The greater issue, though, is the implicit idea that the theater must rival television in its immediacy and its literal reflection of a nation in flux.

There was often the sense that the plays here might have been the product of an assignment in a class on current events, in which the writers had too little time to digest and transform their subjects.

Mr. Margulies' short play, for example, is a moving and graceful account of the events in one day in the life of Kate (the excellent Ms. Knight), a physician in a clinic, with the running motif of her family's and her patients' reactions to the murder of Nicole Simpson. But it also has the feeling of an essay one might find on the opinion pages of a daily newspaper.

An unqualified success

The most unqualified success of the festival was a play with no topical references whatsoever. "Below the Belt" is the work of Richard Dresser, a playwright whose past efforts ("The Downside" and "Better Days") seemed to overreach themselves as sardonic parodies of the state of the nation.

Here, Mr. Dresser has stripped down his style to an almost Pinteresque bareness without losing any of his satiric bite. "Below the Belt," the story of degeneration of three men working for a corporation in the desert of an unspecified foreign country, is little more than a chronicle of petty office rivalries.

But it takes on a droll, Kafkaesque quality, resonant with a sense of human isolation and self-imprisonment, that is hard to shake off.

The dialogue has a heightened, purplish feeling that finds a savage comic poetry in professional paranoia. As directed at an unflagging staccato pace by Gloria Muzio, with superb, fierce performances from William McNulty, V. Craig Heidenreich and Fred Major, it demonstrated that a play can still triumph in purely theatrical terms.

So, in an entirely different way, did "Beast in the Moon," Richard Kalinoski's drama about a mail-order marriage of Armenian exiles in Milwaukee between the wars.

A sturdy, old-fashioned and sentimental portrait of a couple coming to terms with their traumatic histories, with affecting performances by Faran Tahir and Vilma Silva, it was by far the most conventional of the works at the festival. It also, tellingly, was the one that seemed most completely to engage its audience, which gave it a standing ovation.

The award for most ambitious work should go to Ms. Taylor's ungainly "Between the Lines," an epic tale of the divergent destinies of college roommates.

(Its plot encompasses international terrorism, the soullessness of a career in television, the plight of the homeless, plastic surgery, single motherhood and the collapse of the Berlin Wall.)

Mr. Rivera's "Cloud Tectonics" is a Marquesian fable about the timelessness of true love set amid the timely sounds of "the noise of earthquakes, the screams of a dying culture." Beneath its ponderous monologues, there's an appealingly haunted quality that could be brought into relief by editing and more delicate direction.

Ms. Norman's "Trudy Blue," which began life as an elegant one-act at the Ensemble Studio Theater in New York last season, had been expanded into a full-length examination of a middle-age novelist's identity crisis.

It has some lovely, brittle dialogue, and an appealingly wry performance from Joanne Camp as the writer, but it ultimately feels like an extended exercise in navel gazing. It may be time for a moratorium on plays about midlife crises.

There is also, of course, Ms. Martin, a perennial favorite at the festival. Her "Middle-Aged White Guys," a jaunty, robust allegory about the decline of America, has been vigorously directed by Mr. Jory and features the invaluable Anne Pitoniak in a memorable cameo appearance.

Like many of this pseudonymous author's works, it delights in gleeful man-bashing, and its title characters, three corrupt brothers, are forced by otherworldly visitors to walk buck naked across the country to atone for the sins of their race and sex.

Rumors persist that Ms. Martin is in fact a man. If this is true, I would love to meet his therapist.

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