It is easily the most disturbing image of the 14th annual Contemporary American Theater Festival. An actor, Lee Sellars, is suspended in midair, his head covered in blood, his torso impaled on a windshield. Sitting before him in a lawn chair, beer in hand, is the actress Roslyn Wintner. She glares at him irritably, as if she were watching yet another boring program on television.
"Why you ain't dead yet?" she demands to know. It is revealed in "Down and Dirty," one of the two playlets by Lee Blessing under the umbrella title of "Flag Day," that we're in the garage of Wintner's Dot. She has driven home with Sellars's Rex embedded in her windshield -- she plowed into him on a highway -- and now, instead of calling 911, she's waiting for him to bleed to death so she can dispose of the body and get back to what she considers more pressing business.
Until Blessing throws a gratuitous curveball, deadening the drama with an intrusively preachy character -- a playwright in fact -- he has an audience transfixed. Dot's behavior is so revoltingly inhuman -- the episode is based on an actual crime -- that we want all the more desperately to understand her motives. The rather doctrinaire explanation Blessing offers has to do with race and social status: The working-class Dot is black and the homeless Rex is white. Mounted, as it were, like a hunting trophy, Rex is a blank to Dot, an alien species for which she can summon no compassion. And what the strident yet discomfiting "Down and Dirty" suggests is that had the roles been reversed, the level of cruelty might have been exactly the same.
The menu at this year's festival, one of the few across the nation devoted entirely to new work, offers a variety of perspectives on a country divided against itself. From the racially driven pessimism in Blessing's playlets to the terrorism-fueled paranoia of Stuart Flack's "Homeland Security" to the lighthearted culture clash in Richard Dresser's Little League comedy "Rounding Third," the writers invited to the campus of Shepherd University find their voices by tracing the fault lines in the contemporary American character. A fourth work, "The Rose of Corazon," a new musical by Keith Glover, is set in post-World War II Texas but it, too, expresses an up-to-the-minute unease, a sense of a society convulsed by its own diversity.
The festival is not intended as a competition, and that's to the good; among the hit-and-miss offerings, it would be difficult to isolate a best in show. Not surprisingly, Dresser's polished, snappy and formulaic "Rounding Third" is the clear audience favorite, with a dazzling performance by the aforementioned Sellars as a wiseacre, blue-collar children's baseball coach. The festival's pleasures all come in individual contributions rather than whole productions: Lucie Tiberghien's taut and vibrant staging of the Blessing one-acts; the powerful work of Wintner and Albert Jones in those playlets; Glover's pleasingly melodic score, composed with Billy Thompson and George Caldwell; and most remarkably, the festival debut of poised Arielle Jacobs as the lovely, guileless Rosa of "The Rose of Corazon."
Sellars, a stalwart of festivals like Shepherdstown and the older and better-known Humana Festival in Louisville, is so completely in his element as Don, the know-it-all coach in "Rounding Third," that you'd be forgiven for thinking he was playing himself. "Rounding Third" had a staged reading at Shepherdstown a few years back with George Wendt and Matthew Arkin, and last year it was produced off-Broadway, where it was tepidly received by critics.
The play's heart is in the ballfields of the suburbs, which may explain its abbreviated life in Manhattan; it boasts a slew of clever one-liners, but it's also deeply derivative. The two-person work revolves around the conflicts between Don and his new assistant coach, Michael (Andy Prosky), a prissy, white-collar baseball illiterate (the sport of his youth was curling). The similarities to "The Odd Couple" are unmistakable, and though Sellars and Prosky make enjoyable sparring partners, you can't escape the feeling of having seen a lot of this before. It's likely, however, that this failing will be of more concern to reviewers than other spectators, who will be made happy by its slick, quick-witted bonhomie.
"Homeland Security" is a drearier exercise. While its concerns are as fresh as today's news, the melodrama is predictable in all its particulars. A naive Indian American doctor (Amol Shah) and his girlfriend (Christianne Tisdale) are stopped and questioned by the FBI at the airport after an overseas trip. Is it racial profiling, or is the G-man (Scott Whitehurst) onto something? Loads and loads of arguments ensue; the girlfriend's ex-husband (Prosky) is dragged into the plot, for no good reason other than to give the other actors someone else to shout at. Shah exhibits charm, but Tisdale's Susan is unpleasant to the point of shrillness. Flack shows us in great detail what drives the couple apart. He never lets us see why they were together in the first place.
Glover and his colleagues are wrestling in "The Rose of Corazon" with much more promising material, even if at this stage the piece is clumsy; it goes off on odd musical tangents and introduces too many themes. Ostensibly, it's about the journey of a war bride (Jacobs) from Spain to Corazon, Tex., where she must fend off the obstacles to happiness, not the least of them the disability of her flyboy husband, Champ (Michael Flanigan), which prevents them from consummating the marriage.
As with many shows' early drafts, this musical, directed by Glover, is bloated with exposition and hampered by lumpy plot devices. The three narrators (Celina Polanco, Caesar Samayoa and Tisdale) not only insert themselves into every scene but also dispense so much information that there's little left for the lovers to say on their own behalf. Champ at this stage is poorly conceived; his impotence, which is the only complication that gives the musical some tension, is never addressed in any meaningful way, and there's a long, dull digression involving his crashing into a mountain and meeting a group of banditos. Thank goodness for some sweet songs and the presence of Jacobs, who holds the proceedings together to an astonishing degree.
Blessing contributes the pieces with the most potent strain of theatricality. Yet his gloves-off approach to racism in America, explored with equal vehemence in the other playlet, "Good, Clean Fun," in which two people -- one black, one white -- who detest each other are forced to share an office, is emblematic of a playwright who tends to clobber issues with a mallet. Like Michael Moore, Blessing often preaches at full volume to the choir. Sometimes, messages that come in loudest and clearest are also the easiest to shrug off.
Contemporary American Theater Festival. Plays by Lee Blessing, Stuart Flack, Keith Glover and Richard Dresser. Through Aug. 1 at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va. Call 800-999-CATF or visit www.catf.org.