Allusions to showbiz, and to literature, pepper the fare now at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, the annual showcase in Shepherdstown, W.Va., for recently minted plays. On the festival’s stages, you can find a sequel to Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” and a tense, wisecracking tete-a-tete between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. You can even find a comedy about bumbling Islamist terrorists who treasure “Star Wars” trivia. It’s as if, faced with a society that sometimes seems to marginalize the art form, playwrights are striving to remind everyone that culture can endure.
Not that this year’s festival lineup appears particularly well-endowed with staying power. Of the five plays running in rotating repertory, only two are satisfying and dexterously crafted. But, as is inevitably the case at this Shepherdstown event, all the productions feature terrific acting and handsome direction and design. The production values add richness to the most memorable piece on the roster, the intense, suspenseful world premiere of “H2O” by Jane Martin.
Part bittersweet romance, part funny culture-war chronicle, part wrenching portrait of depression and survival, “H2O” does suffer from a schematic setup: Having found sudden success as an action-movie star, the self-destructive, loose-living Jake (Alex Podulke) tries to give his life meaning by tackling the role of Hamlet. After he decides that a devout Christian actress named Deborah (Diane Mair) is right to play his Ophelia, the two performers become hesitant friends.
Deborah’s worldview offers Jake the kind of order and certainty he needs. She even sees acting as a divinely inspired calling — a nice alternative to the meaningless con game he believes it to be. But he can’t will himself into faith, and as he and Deborah grow closer, the outlook for their well-being, and for their “Hamlet,” looks increasingly grim.
In the early scenes, it’s hard to see “H2O” as more than a tug-of-war between conveniently opposed belief systems. But Podulke’s Jake is so rivetingly moody, and Mair’s Deborah is by turns so fervent and likably wry, that you can’t help succumbing to the story, which unfurls on David M. Barber’s atmospheric, tiled set. Jon Jory’s fluid direction, which has scene, costume and makeup changes happening in full view of the audience, speeds the pace and complements the play’s meta-theatrical motifs.
With its two-person cast and valentine-to-thespians plotline, “H2O” could go on to stagings around the country. There may also be demand for “Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah,” the highly watchable world premiere written and directed by Mark St. Germain (known for the popular “Freud’s Last Session,” about Freud and C.S. Lewis). Set in a Hollywood apartment enclave in 1937, and amply padded with historical name-dropping (breezy references to Dorothy Parker, Bill Faulkner, Archie MacLeish and more), the play imagines a turbulent conversation between the friendly-yet-competitive Fitzgerald and Hemingway, who revive old grievances; brood about fame, mortality and the seductive temptations of the movie industry; and learn alarming truths about each other’s notions of integrity and strength.