Sarasota Herald-Tribune (FL)

An annual theater festival known for siring hits produces no triple-crown winners this year but some plays show promise.

April 20, 1997

Is romantic-comedy making a comeback? The perennial-but-faded genre is making a bitingly cynical return, judging by the highlights of the 21st Annual Humana Festival for New American Plays.

This year's relatively weak festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Humana's headquarters city, offered no obviously great new works, unlike years past, when it produced such hits as "Crimes of the Heart,'' "The Gin Game,'' "Extremities'' and "Agnes of God.''

This year, playwrights reached for the heavens by way of Greek mythology to tell stories ranging from the urban nightmare of homelessness in Naomi Iizuka's "Polaroid Stories'' to Edwin Sanchez's warm-hearted and romantic "Icarus.''

But it was the more-earthbound plays that made the festival soar, notably "Private Eyes'' by Steven Dietz and "Gunshy'' by Richard Dresser, two comedies that deal with romance and relationships in comically unusual ways.

"Private Eyes'' is a winding and twisting look at a relationship, or at least, a relationship as depicted by a twisted playwright. It revolves around an actor, Matthew, who fears his wife, Lisa, is having an affair with their director. But he's not sure, and Dietz keeps the knots tight, slowly unraveling them before pulling the noose taut again.

The play opens with an actress auditioning for a play with a conceited director, but then it turns out the whole scene is part of a rehearsal for a play. It's that way throughout this play - a seemingly realistic situation turns out to be part of a staged scene, or part of a character's fantasies being told to his psychiatrist, or some other surprisingly comical twist.

Dietz's play was highlighted by his brisk writing and crisp direction, and particularly luminescent performances by actress Kate Goehring as Lisa (she played Harper Pitt in the national tour of "Angels in America'') and Lee Sellars as Matthew.

'Gunshy'

If Dietz provided the sharpest play, Dresser delivered the wittiest script in "Gunshy,'' about a separated couple involved in new relationships but clearly still in love with one another. Although his lines often are brilliant, the characters are not particularly likable, no matter how much actors Maryann Urbano and William McNulty register with the audience.

Urbano plays Evie. She's involved with a chronic whiner named Carter who's always competing to prove he's all man. McNulty plays Duncan, who is trying to build a relationship with a much younger woman named Caitlin. Problem is, Caitlin enjoyed their relationship more when they were cheating on Evie.

Witty lines take the story far, but it's obvious within 20 minutes what's going to happen, and Dresser follows the predictable route. Still, it's hard not to enjoy hearing Evie complain to Carter, "I'm not going to stay in this relationship alone,'' or telling Duncan that "This whole divorce is in a shambles.''

`Icarus'

Where Dresser's play focuses on being honest and open, "Icarus'' explores the meaning and feeling of beauty. Sanchez, the playwright, introduces a woman with facial deformities to a young man trying to escape from his supposed beauty. The woman takes care of her invalid brother, who swims in the ocean and plans to be the first person to touch the sun.

This exploration of what is beautiful, and whether you can love another before you love yourself, has its tender moments. But Sanchez overloads his play with a mysterious character named Mr. Ellis, who has much wisdom to impart but does so with too much shtick and not enough meaning. New York cabaret performer and monologist Julie Halston does wonders as an empty-headed blond beauty known as "The Gloria'' who knows that she'll be forgotten as soon as her looks go.

Also rans

Those are the plays with possibilities. Others, while intriguing, may not have much of a life beyond Louisville, at least not without substantial work. "Polaroid Stories'' plays up its mythological tie-ins with characters named for some Greek gods, but comes off as snapshots of urban street life, providing another nightmarish vision of life for the homeless without anything to help the audience connect emotionally with the characters.

With "In Her Sight,'' Carol Mack hasn't figured out what play she's writing. What comes off like a medical "Amadeus'' is the story of a blind pianist who has her sight restored but loses her musical abilities.

Her doctor is Franz Mesmer, the 18th-century Austrian who developed a method of therapy known as mesmerism, something like what we now call hypnotism. Part of the play focuses on the medical establishment's attacks on Mesmer's practices. That might make a more interesting story. It worked in "Amadeus,'' where the court composer Salieri was threatened by the obvious genius of Mozart. But "In Her Sight'' doesn't explain why the other doctors fear Mesmer.

A potential Derby winner is Benjie Aerenson's "Lighting Up the Two-Year Old,'' which is set in the horse country and focuses on three men involved in an insurance plot gone astray. A trainer ropes a groom into electrocuting one of the horses to collect insurance money and save the stables. But something goes wrong. Part of that "something'' is the length of time it takes for the play to reveal what went wrong and whodunnit.

But Aerenson's characters are strong, especially the trainer, Carl (played by Bob Borrus as if he had just left the horse farm). Carl questions people with the same roundabout intensity as Lt. Columbo, knowing the answers all along, but enjoying the way people squirm. By the end, however, I was squirming, too.

If there was ever a need to justify the festival's annual assortment of 10-minute plays, Neena Beber's brief "Misreadings'' did it, proving to be the most genuine of all the festival works this year. It's a brief-but-powerful look at a college student who is bored with her studies and seeking a way to connect with a disconnected world. Sometimes brevity is best.