Et tu, Kings of Leon?
None too decorously, and with some cheap recourse to pop music, the theme of treachery haunts the plays at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, a prominent showcase for up-and-coming dramatists and significant new and new-ish plays. The five works in this year’s lineup — running in rotating repertory through July 31 at West Virginia’s Shepherd University — imagine or brood over betrayals by family members, American society, the body, the universe and God.
It’s a potentially rich motif at a time when many folks feel sold out by politicians, the economy and the final episode of “The Killing.” Unfortunately, while the 2011 CATF repertory showcases knockout performances by top-drawer actors — par for the course at this handsomely produced festival — the plays themselves are, at best, unmemorable, and at worst, exasperating bores.
Take, for instance, Tracy Thorne’s tedious play about a mixed-race family struggling to come to terms with the death of a child. Previously performed in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and directed for the CATF by Lucie Tiberghien, “We Are Here” features good-hearted, self-aware characters prone to flights of improbably eloquent talk around a grand piano.
Gabbiness substitutes for dramatic conflict, and when Thorne’s personalities aren’t turning an articulate phrase, they’re engaging in family cabaret performances, a time-consuming plot device that fails to advance the play’s storytelling or characterizations. In one particularly wince-inducing sequence, the self-doubting young philanthropist Hal (Cary Donaldson) and his feisty sister-in-law, Shawn (a wonderfully impassioned Stacey Sargeant), celebrate the birth of Hal’s new son by — naturally! — performing a karaoke version of the Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody.” With its goofy pop-zeitgeist specificity, the scene undermines the play’s serious, if unsuccessful, contemplation of universal concerns such as mortality and grief.
“We Are Here” does benefit from Crystal A. Dickinson’s heart-wrenching turn as Hal’s wife, Billie, who feels existentially betrayed when her son, Eli, dies. Also terrific is young actor Barrington Walters Jr., who plays Eli, a role that involves concluding the play with a wistful solo of the standard “I Concentrate on You.” The pathos-filled moment, which prompted audible snuffles from some audience members at a recent performance, seems a poor substitute for meaningful narrative and thematic closure.
Tracy Thorne is not the only festival playwright to substitute a nice song for dramaturgical resolution. A comparable cop-out wraps up Lucy Thurber’s ambitious and heavy-handed, history-themed drama “The Insurgents,” a CATF commission making its world premiere under the direction of Lear deBessonet.
“The Insurgents” takes a bold approach to the centuries-spanning problem of disenfranchisement in America: The play’s protagonist, Sally (a marvelous Cassie Beck), is a contemporary young woman whose college education has been cut short through no fault of her own. Returning to her family home in an impoverished backwater, Sally becomes increasingly distraught about America’s socioeconomic fault lines. “We’re trapped in a game. And you can’t win the game,” she tells her father (John Ottavino), a construction worker who’s been injured on the job.
Killing time in the run-down kitchen, Sally finds herself talking to history’s Nat Turner (Daniel Morgan Shelley), Harriet Tubman (Stacey Sargeant) and John Brown. (Ottavino portrays Brown, whose cameo is particularly resonant, given that Harpers Ferry, where Brown led a famous 1859 raid, is just a stone’s throw from Shepherdstown.) Also strolling in from the eerie velvet blackness behind the kitchen (Margaret McKowen designed the set; D.M. Wood, the lighting) is Timothy McVeigh (Carey Donaldson), whose surprisingly affable presence hints that Sally, too, is becoming unhinged. After examining the invisible lines that separate frustration from revolutionary action, and mental derangement from pioneering social vision, the slack and underpolished “Insurgents” cuts its losses and offers a climactic Creedence Clearwater Revival tune.
Far more artistic rigor has gone into the festival’s other world premiere, Kyle Bradstreet’s irony-riddled tale of doubt, faith and faithlessness. Alas, formal elegance does not, in this case, make for satisfying theater. A braiding of monologues by three characters who do not interact, “From Prague” — directed by the festival producing director Ed Herendeen — has admittedly received a snazzy visual incarnation from set designer Margaret McKowen and lighting designer William C. Kirkham. The actors move over and around a snow-dusted stone pavement lined by guttering and burnt-out candles. At the far end of the pavement, an enormous crucifix slants like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
The setup represents the city that offers refuge to Columbia University professor Samuel (John Lescault) after his judgmental son Charles (Andy Bean) catches him in an adulterous affair. Prague is also temporary home to Anna (Julianna Zinkel), the girlfriend of Samuel’s son Geoff. In speeches that revel in scenic description and speculate briefly about the existence of God, each character relates a version of the family tragedy, which is a snarl of misunderstandings and duplicity. The performances are enjoyably intense, — Bean’s vulgar, self-righteous Charles is particularly vibrant — but the play as a whole has a too-tidy flatness, and the Prague references exude the naive euphoria of a grad student trying out his first Eurail Pass.
It’s a long way from the Czech Republic to the Kentucky setting of Sam Shepard’s mildly mythic portrait of two geezers yakking on a rural porch during a lunar eclipse. Under Ed Herendeen’s direction, John Ottavino and Anderson Matthews turn in funny, poignant, craggy portraits of old friends Byron and Ames, one of whom may be a dimension, or an invention, of the other. As the two drink, talk about old times and ponder the anger of Ames’s wife, — who has found out about a fling he’s had — the play becomes a parable about aging and mortality, themes underscored by the enormous moon that slowly blossoms in the night sky, only to be consumed in shadow. Premiering in Ireland in 2009, “Ages of the Moon” is minor Shepard, and the CATF production is noteworthy mostly for the beautiful lunar effect (Kathryn Kawecki designed the set; D.M. Wood, the lighting) and for some funny shtick involving a ceiling fan (Sean McArdle is credited as “fan technician”).
An extra fan might come in handy in the world of this David Mamet play, given all the hot air its lawyer characters generate. Premiering on Broadway in 2009, and directed here by the apparently indefatigable Ed Herendeen, “Race” unfurls in the offices of a high-powered law firm. Partners Henry (a steely Guiesseppe Jones) and Jack (a flinty Kurt Zischke) are considering defending Charles (Anderson Matthews), a wealthy white man accused of raping an African American woman. Given that Jack is white and Henry and legal newbie Susan (Crystal A. Dickinson) are black, the decision is fraught with tension, to say the least.
As the attorneys interrogate Charles and browbeat Susan, lobbing provocative statements (“ ‘Belief,’ sir, hamstrings the advocate”) like grenades, the play delights in the lightning-rod potency of race and gender issues. Mamet aims to titillate and shock, and he succeeds, but there’s something shallow, mannered and repetitious about the process. The play might almost be Mamet’s version of that airwave-clogging line by the Kings of Leon: “I hope it’s gonna make you notice.”
We noticed, David. And we noticed that the flawed “Race” is the most watchable of the 2011 CATF offerings. Maybe next year’s festival will bring better scripts. We could use some.
Wren is a freelance writer.
through July 31 at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va. Call 800-999-2283
or visit www.catf.org .