“On the Aisle with Larry”

Lawrence Harbison,The Playfixer, usually brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry tells you about this year’s Humana Festival.

Actors Theatre of Louisville Artistic Director Marc Masterson, who is moving on to helm South Coast Rep after this season, has really gone out with a bang. This year’s Humana Festival, the 35th annual edition, has easily the strongest lineup of any of the 10 Masterson has produced.

I started this year’s Humana Marathon off on the right foot with A. Rey Pamatmat’s engaging Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them, about a pair of teens, Edith and Kenny (brother and sister), who have been pretty much abandoned by their father, who has moved out and is living with his girlfriend. He puts money in the bank for them, but that’s about the extent of his involvement in their lives. Their mother is dead. Also in the mix is another teen, Benji, a gawky youth who is in love with Kenny. Edith is a crack shot with her bee-bee gun. One night Dad and his girlfriend show up; but before they can enter Edith shoots her. She winds up in the hospital and Edith winds up in reform school. Meanwhile, Benji is thrown out of his home when his mom discovers he’s gay. He goes to live with Kenny. Eventually, after Edith makes a daring escape from reform school, the three teens become a sort of family. Teresa Avia Lim (Edith), John Norman Schneider (Kenny) and Cory Michael Smith (Benji) were all wonderful. May Adrales’ direction was wonderful. Everyone seemed to love this play, me included.

Pretty much everyone also loved Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Bob, too, even though it was a tad too long (but that’s fixable). The play is a surreal biography, covering the life from birth to death of Bob, who is abandoned as a baby in the ladies’ room of a White Castle and who rises, in a series of hilarious steps, to become wealthy and famous. Jeffrey Binder was wonderful as Bob, and Aysan Celik, Polly Lee, Danny Schele and Lou Sumrall were delightful as multiple characters Bob meets on his life’s journey. Sean Daniels’ direction was clever and inventive.

Anne Washburn’s A Devil at Noon was a play which mystified pretty much everyone I talked to. Washburn tried to juggle multiple plot strands, but none of them made much sense. One seemed to involved covert surveillance of a novelist who I am told was based on Philip K. Dick. Who knew? Washburn’s obtuse, NYC “downtown theatre” sensibility went over like a pregnant pole-vaulter. There were multiple ditches at the intermission.

Adam Rapp’s The Edge of Our Bodies was the Surprise Hit this year. Of course, every play is a surprise; but I call this one the Surprise Hit because it’s a narrative monologue. The audience started out game to endure it and wound out being completely captivated by this tale of a 16 year-old girl named Bernadette who plays hooky from her Connecticut prep school to journey into Manhattan to tell her 19 year-old boyfriend that she’s pregnant. She meets his Dad, who’s dying of cancer, and has a strange encounter with a man who picks her up at a bar, but she never finds her boyfriend, as it becomes increasingly obvious that he is ducking her.

Rapp’s writing was very compelling (as always); but what really made this piece was the exquisite performance by Catherine Combs as Bernadette. When we see this play in NYC, as I think we will, I hope she gets to recreate her performance.

Jordan Harrison’s Maple and Vine was also a crowd-pleaser. It was about a couple who decide to join a community comprised of people who live as if it were the 1950s, a much less complicated time than our harried era. Of course, this utopia turns out to have its dark underside, which emerges as the play progresses. Harrison’s writing was witty and fresh, and Anne Kaufman’s staging was superb. Unfortunately, Harrison built to what should have been a powerful ending and then pooped out. But most of the play was wonderful.

Molly Smith Metzler’s Elemeno Pea was the most conventional play in the Festival. It was also a Festival Fave, especially for me. It was set on an estate on Martha’s Vineyard, owned by a fabulously wealthy couple. The central character is Simone, personal assistant to trophy wife Michaela. She has invited her sister Devon for the weekend, and Devon is appalled by the excess she sees. Meanwhile, it soon emerges that Michaela’s husband is dumping her.

The play is extremely funny and I hear there are plans for a commercial production, most likely with stars. Of all the plays in this year’s Humana Festival, this one has I think the strongest legs.

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

—– George F. Will

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