"Having been unpopular in high school," observed Fran Lebowitz in her 1978 essay collection Metropolitan Life, "is not just cause for book publication." If she had seen Sarah Ruhl's For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, the world premiere of which is part of the 40th Humana Festival of New American Plays, she might have added that a death in the family is not just cause for play production.

As the play opens, five adult siblings are gathered in the remarkably large hospital room of their comatose father George. (The oldest, Ann, is 70; the others are in their 50s and 60s.) In what feels like the strongest of the play's three scenes, the siblings ruminate on death, the afterlife, and what it means to really be an adult. The tension of waiting for the end that they both dread and anticipate is palpable and believable.

The remaining two scenes are less impressive. In the first, Ann and her brothers and sisters gather in George's house for an impromptu wake. Fueled by liberal doses of Jameson, they tell stories from their childhood, share jokes, and engage in political arguments which, given the play's setting during "the Clinton era," feel rather dated. Meanwhile, the ghost of George wanders in and out, repeating the routines of his daily life -- and generating some of the funniest moments.

Finally, everyone toddles off to bed and Ann, who serves as the play's narrator, dreams of repeating the role of Peter Pan -- the part she played at a local theatre before heading off to college -- with her siblings as the Darling family and brother Jim as Captain Hook. Like the previous scene, it has no real dramatic shape and doesn't really go anywhere. A final scene between Ann and her ghostly father suggests that she is coming to terms with his departure, but it essentially comes out of nowhere, dramatically speaking.

Kathleen Chalfant leads a strong cast as a sympathetic and engaging Ann. There's good work here as well from Keith Reddin as Michael, David Chandler as Jim, Lisa Emery as Wendy, and Ron Crawford as the spectral George. Barney O'Hanlon was a late substitution in the role of the youngest brother, John, but you wouldn't have known that from his assured performance.

Les Waters directs with a sure eye for both the comedy and drama in the script, but even so For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday is a bit too specifically autobiographical for its own good. It feels less like a play for a general audience than a home video. Ms. Ruhl is a highly regarded playwright with a string of frequently performed and justifiably praised shows, though, so I'm inclined to cut her a little slack with this one.

For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday runs through Sunday, April 10 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium at Actors Theatre of Louisville as part of the 40th Humana Festival of New American Plays.

 

Every edition of the Humana Festival features a program of short one-act plays organized around a common theme and performed by the students of the Actors Theatre of Louisville's Acting Apprentice Company. This year's show, Wondrous Strange, focuses on ghosts and the supernatural and takes its title from Horatio's exclamation of astonishment after seeing the ghost of Hamlet's father, "O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!"

"Kentucky's supernatural lore fills anthology after anthology," writes Jessica Reese in the program book, "and every year, thousands of visitors head to the state's haunted landmarks, from posh hotels and mansions to dive bars and Civil War sites. . . . This season, four fearless writers -- Martyna Majok, Meg Miroshnik, Jiehae Park, and Jen Silverman -- have been invited to venture into the spirit realm and examine the unexplained and the uncanny."

The resulting short (70 minute) collection of nine plays, sketches, and "blackouts" is a bit uneven but taken as a whole it's great fun and performed with skill and versatility by a company of 20 talented young actors. Even though we saw it at a 10:30 a.m. matinee, the show still created an appropriately spooky atmosphere, punctuated with moments of inspired comedy.

Most of the comedy comes from Jen Silverman's two contributions. "Ghost Bros" is a hilariously on-target send-up of supernatural "reality" TV and juvenile machismo as the titular "bros" (Alejandro Hernandez, Jayson Speters, and Addison Williams) blunder their way through a long-abandoned insane asylum in unsuccessful pursuit of a ghostly little girl (Walls Trimble). "The Bonnets," which concludes the show, is an enthusiastic celebration of murder and mayhem by the female members of the company, dressed in modest nightgowns and bonnets.

Martyna Majok contributes one of the best pieces, a touching little character study about an inexperienced prostitute (Glenna Brucken) who advertises herself as a psychic to stay ahead of the law, only to discover that her customer (Mr. Hernandez) is really only interested in a reading. Instead of playing this for laughs, Ms. Majok makes it a charming portrait of two troubled people looking for comfort in a cold world.

One of the creepiest entries is Meg Miroshnik's "The Holler," about a group of friends who have made the mistake of trying to turn part of a former abattoir into an apartment -- with unpleasant results. Her zombie tale "Bug" is a close second, but I thought its predictability spoiled it a bit.

Jiehae Park's "Something Like" takes the ghost story into cyberspace as a young woman (Tracey Green) becomes addicted to interacting with an artificial intelligence program (Adenike Thomas) modeled after her deceased lover. It downplays the supernatural element to deliver a moving illustration of how we deal with loss.

Directors Marti Lyons and John Rooney make good use of the Bingham Theatre's versatile space, assisted by Paul Toben's dramatic lighting and Christian Frederickson's sound, both of which go a long way towards establishing a disturbing atmosphere.

Wondrous Strange runs through Sunday, April 10 at Actors Theatre of Louisville as part of the 40th Humana Festival of New American Plays.

 

One of the great pleasures of the novels of Charles Dickens is the often comical way in which he arranges for characters from very disparate walks of life to be connected, often by wildly improbable coincidences. In Steven Dietz's new comedy, This Random World, the veteran comic playwright stands that convention on its head.

In Dietz's anti-Dickensian story, characters who are already related to each other, however tangentially, repeatedly miss making connections as a result of coincidences that are as unlikely and comical as anything the great British novelist ever dreamed up.

As the play opens, Scottie -- in her 70s and ailing, but still energetic -- is preparing for a trip to the Shimogamo Shrine in Kyoto with her assistant and general dogsbody Bernadette. Bernadette convinces Scottie to send Bernadette's younger sister Rhonda instead, but events conspire to force a last-minute cancellation on Scottie's part, sending Rhonda to Japan on her own. Meanwhile, Scottie's daughter Beth, who believes her mother to be a shut-in, has taken off on an adventurous and expensive trip of her own to Nepal where, because of a missed connection, she is thrown together with Gary, a new-agey life coach and the ex-boyfriend of the outrageously neurotic Claire, who is the ex-girlfriend of Scottie's son Tim.

As for Tim, he's a failed writer and computer hacker whose already off-track life is sent into a genuine tailspin when his prank hack of a mortuary's server results in the publication of his own fictional obituary. His attempts to explain to Rhonda -- who just happens to work at said mortuary -- that he is actually alive prove to be as funny as they are frustrating.

I could have used the word "coincidentally" a lot in those last two paragraphs but you get the idea. As the characters' lives spin merrily out of control, the connections that might get them back on track are repeatedly missed in absurdly unlikely ways. In one scene, for example, Bernadette just happens to leave her cell phone behind in a hospital waiting room at exactly the point when Beth, who just happens to have lost her cell, is calling from a pay phone to find out what's going on with Scottie. As the phone rings, Tim just happens to walk in. He answers it just as Beth impatiently hangs up.

Apparently, the phone just happens not to have voice mail.

Not all of the missed connections are funny, of course. Dietz is too smart a playwright not to throw in a few scenes that are genuinely touching. And those scenes work because, with the possible exception of the absurdly unhappy Claire, his characters are all well drawn and believable.

The actors do well by these characters. Brenda Withers's Beth is as confident as Nate Miller's Tim is lost and perennially baffled. Beth Dixon is an appealingly feisty Scottie, nicely contrasting with Shirine Babb's patient Bernadette. Todd Lawson's Gary is perfectly clueless and Deonna Bouye's Rhonda is hilariously motor-mouthed. Dietz has made the role of Claire fairly one dimensional, but Renata Friedman makes her interesting nevertheless.

Dietz's script calls for a set that suggests "a world that is warm, mysterious and evocative" and designer Daniel Zimmerman has certainly delivered that. Director Meredith McDonough keeps the action focused and smoothly flowing among the play's many scenes.

This Random World is essentially a one-joke play, but the variations on that joke are so ingenious that it never goes stale or wears out its welcome, remaining thoroughly entertaining right up to the surprising final scene. Given its relatively simple technical demands, I'd expect it to start appearing on other regional stages in the coming years; it certainly deserves to be seen.

This Random World runs through Sunday, April 10 at the Bingham Theatre at the Actors Theatre of Louisville as part of the 40th Humana Festival of New American Plays

 

The poor are a frequent topic of American political discourse, receiving compassionate concern from the left and righteous hatred from the right. But our shredded social safety net has left the middle class in precarious straits these days as well -- a fact which, while not discussed overtly, is nevertheless a recurring theme in Laura Jacqmin's comedy/drama Residence.

As the play opens Maggie, a new mom, has just checked in to an extended-stay hotel (the "Residence" of the title) in Tempe, Arizona. She's selling a portable ultrasound system to local doctors, hoping to earn enough in commissions to get her family out of debt and her life back on track. In the process she encounters Bobby, the hotel's all-purpose "gofer" and Theresa, the ambitious manager trainee determined to give her a "five star experience."

Bobby and Theresa couldn't be more different in some ways. He's a slacker pothead avoiding commitment with his ex-girlfriend and she's a perky college student determined to get ahead at pretty much any cost. And neither of them appears to have much in common with Maggie, who just wants her life to be less crazy.

As the play progresses, though, it's clear that what unites them is that they're just one bad break or wrong choice away from personal and economic disaster. That constant sense of life on the high wire gives Residence a sense of dramatic urgency, even while individual scenes are often extremely and very believably funny. Sometimes they're even a bit of both, as in the alcoholic seduction scene between Bobby and Theresa, which suddenly turns confrontational when Theresa realizes Bobby has a daughter with his former girlfriend.

As is so often the case at Actors Theatre of Louisville, the cast of Residence is impeccable. Leah Karpel and Alejandro Rodriguez play off each other beautifully as Theresa and Bobby, and Danielle Slavick makes Maggie impressively sympathetic -- not an easy task, given what a very disturbed person Ms. Jacqmin has made her.

Avery Glymph shows considerable range as all of Maggie's doctor clients plus husband Ben, who appears only via Skype. And Amelia Workman is on stage all too briefly as Bobby's ex Nita. She's an intriguing character, but the script makes her something of an enigma. It's not at all clear what she sees in Bobby, who simply can't seem to find a way to take his life or responsibilities seriously.

In fact, the sketchiness of nearly all the characters is one of the script's major weaknesses. The principals are not quite shallow enough to be simple stereotypes -- although Maggie comes perilously close to being little more than a psychiatric diagnosis -- but neither are they fleshed out enough to feel entirely real.

In addition, the issues raised in Residence are, perhaps, a bit too specific to our current social and economic situation here in the USA to have much resonance beyond it. I think this is likely to be one of those pieces that perfectly captures a particular moment in time and then quickly fades.

Still, it's a well-made piece overall, with a shrewdly observed critique of the petty ways in which those with a little bit of economic power seem compelled to throw their weight around and make life miserable for the rest of us. Barbara Ehrenreich described that phenomenon in detail in her 2001 book Nickel and Dimed, but it is perhaps time for a reminder. And Hal Brooks's sharp direction serves the play well.

Residence runs through Sunday, April 10 in the Bingham Theatre at the Actors Theatre of Louisville as part of the 40th Humana Festival of New American Plays

 

Dramatizing contemporary political events is a risky proposition. A story "ripped from the headlines" can have immediate impact but fade quickly as the latest outrage takes center stage. Fortunately, Hansol Jung's gripping drama Cardboard Piano manages to balance that sense of immediacy with a contemplation of deeper issues.

It's New Year's Eve, 1999, and in a church in Northern Uganda Chris, the daughter of an American missionary, and Adiel, a local teenage girl, are preparing to welcome the new millennium with a secret wedding ceremony. Their celebration is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Pika, a child soldier in the infamous Lord's Resistance Army fleeing the brutal commander who has cut off the boy's ear for failing to carry out a sadistic command.

Chris and Adiel patch his wounds, but as subsequent events demonstrate, the damage to his soul runs much deeper. As the first act comes to a violent close, it seems that the play has nowhere to go, but when the second act opens in the same church ten years later, it's clear that Ms. Jung's concerns go beyond a simple contemplation of the horrors of war.

As Paul, the church's Ugandan pastor, rehearses a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan with his wife Ruth, the scene looks peaceful enough. (The Biblical resonance of the names will prove significant.) But as in the first act, that peace is shattered by the appearance of a third party -- Chris, now an adult and hoping to bury her late father's ashes in the church garden. Her arrival sets in motion a series of dramatic explosions that strike at the heart of Christian concepts of mercy and forgiveness.

Interviewed in the program book, Ms. Jung notes that "religion can do two opposite things. It can destroy, hurt, and be an instigator of violence, but it can also be the only thing capable of controlling that violence. . . . I am a Christian, but I've always interrogated what that means. That really influenced the writing of this play." Forgiveness, as the subsequent action of the play suggests, is not an easy thing to truly grant -- and may not always be justified.

Cardboard Piano uses the same cast for both acts, with the performers playing the roles of Adiel, Pika's commander, and Pika appearing in the second act as, respectively, Ruth, Paul, and Francis, a gay teenager who is leaving town to escape the rabid homophobia of the town's populace. That adds interesting resonance to the characters and gives the actors an opportunity to demonstrate their impressive range.

As Paul and Pika's commander, Michael Luwoye has perhaps the biggest challenge, since the roles are so radically different. He meets it brilliantly, creating two sharply contrasting and credible characters. Nike Kadri also makes Adiel and Ruth different enough to make suspension of disbelief easy, as does Jamar Williams as Pika and Francis. Briana Pozner very effectively differentiates the teenaged and adult versions of Chris with subtle and consistent changes in vocal inflection and body language, assisted by Ms. Jung's smartly crafted dialog.

Director Leigh Silverman guides this all with a sure hand and Scenic Designer William Boles's set makes creative use of the Jory Theatre's intimate black box space.

As our own domestic political process plays out the conflict between a version of Christianity based on mercy and compassion vs. one based on anger and judgment, the issues in Cardboard Piano feel both immediate and timeless. I'd be surprised if this play didn't have a life after Humana.

Cardboard Piano runs through Sunday, April 10 in the Jory Theatre at Actors Theatre of Louisville as part of the 40th Humana Festival of New American Plays

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