Once a year, just as spring is beginning to color the outlying fields light green, they descend by the hundreds on this quiet city on the Ohio River -- New York literary agents, theater producers, West Coast entertainment moguls, talent scouts, directors and critics, all on the lookout for the next Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

The occasion is the Actors Theatre of Louisville's annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. And last weekend, they came again, some from as far away as Ghana, India and Finland, for the ninth installment of what has become a three-day, nonstop bash of theater-going, deal-making, glad-handing and general philosophizing about the state of the art.

Only hardcore optimists were denying that the American theater is in rotten shape, largely incapable of nurturing new playwrights or preventing the established ones from selling out to the movies or television. But after the curtain had fallen on this year's 12 entries, even the optimists had to concede that ATL hadn't come up with any quick fixes.

A single play, "Tent Meeting," a rich and dark comedy about a family of Bible Belt fanatics who seem to believe they are the agents of the Second Coming, met with justifiably widespread enthusiasm. Strangely enough, the outrageousness of the satire -- baby Jesus was a vegetable in a picnic hamper, and the flight into Egypt a tumultuous trailer trip to Moose Jaw, Canada -- did not preclude a sense of divine mystery at work. Acting in their own play, the three authors -- Rebecca Alworth, Larry Larson and Levi Lee -- were paragons of redneck religiosity.

A brace of one-act plays by Frank Manley -- "The Rain of Terror" and "An Errand of Mercy" -- also mined the cracker mentality with some success, while a third one-act, Bruce Bonafede's journalistic "Advice to the Players," which depicted two black South African actors caught in the conflicting demands of politics and art, at least had timeliness going for it. James McClure's "The Very Last Lover of the River Cane" contained a bone-crunching, furniture-smashing saloon brawl, as convincing as any Hollywood ever put on celluloid. If only pugilistics were play-writing, McClure's slice of small-town Texas would have been home free.

But drama is more than fisticuffs, and the rough and tumble showdown came to symbolize the dramatic flailing that was going on in most of the other offerings. Lee Blessing's two-character "War of the Roses" charted the breakup of a 21-year marriage. But it was characteristic of this maddeningly vague work that the wife (the gravely poetic Cara Duff-MacCormick) was incapable of articulating any of her reasons for wanting out of the relationship. (High on the list, apparently, was the way her husband blew his nose. "It makes me want to pull my face off," screamed Duff-MacCormick, who may have been saddled with the festival's most infelicitous line.)

J.F. O'Keefe's turgid family drama "Ride the Dark Horse" had, as its heroine, a beautiful 19-year-old pianist who was dying of cancer. It took her an unconscionably long time, which the other characters spent by either brooding deeply or setting the dining-room table. With rewrites, it might make a bad TV movie of the week. It's hard to imagine, however, what rewrites might make of "The Black Branch," an asylum drama by Gary Leon Hill and Jo Hill; utterly impenetrable, it resembled "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" on an acid trip.

Murphy Guyer's "The American Century" was an easy short-circuiting of America's post-World War II dreams of peace and progress. In Ellen McLaughlin's "Days and Nights Within," an East German interrogator relentlessly grilled a middle-aged woman, falsely suspected of spying for the Americans. It proved grueling in all the wrong ways, and, although it drew its inspiration from a real-life story, didn't seem any less false for that.

The nadir, however, was reached by Heather McDonald's "Available Light," an alternatingly scruffy and pretentious chronicle of a young French peasant in 19th-century Normandy who yearns to fly. The defections at intermission ran high and wags soon took to referring to it as "Available Seating."

In a sense, the festival is a victim of its own success. It was here that such plays as "Crimes of the Heart," "The Gin Game," "Getting Out" and "Agnes of God" crashed through to the big time. Dozens more -- among them, "Extremities," "Talking With," "Lone Star," "My Sister in This House" -- have had continuing, if somewhat less spectacular, life on the nation's regional stages. All told, more than 70 of the works that ATL has presented over the years -- one-acts and full-length dramas -- have been published, and while there is no way of measuring the exact number of productions they receive annually, ATL's producing director, Jon Jory, estimates that "it must be in the hundreds."

At the same time, the festival has acquired -- unavoidably, perhaps -- some of the more disheartening aspects of a trade show, dedicated to the merchandising of new plays, or failing that, of playwrights, who next time out just may produce the certifiable hit. No one says so openly, of course. It is considered bad form to look upon the Humana Festival as anything but a disinterested display of theater for theater's sake. Jory likes to view it as "an international gathering of theater people," fascinated, as he is, by the "process" of coaxing and cajoling plays to life on a stage. His only concern, he maintains, is "the text and what you can do for it." Presumably, the means alone count here, not the ends. Once plays leave Louisville, Jory says, he reads about their fortunes in the newspapers like everyone else.

Still, the festival is not entirely free of a certain voraciousness on the part of both participants and viewers. Nobody wants to come away empty-handed. The playwrights wouldn't mind landing options; the producers are eager to snap up some hot properties; the performers can't help looking out of the corner of one eye for the next role; and the journalists would prefer to hand over a good story to their editors. Art and commerce mingle warily. Whether a play has the chance to "make it" inspires at least as much debate as what it is about. In such an overly acquisitive climate, the virtues of a middling script can get inflated out of all proportion -- to wit, last year's succe s d'estime, "The Octette Bridge Club," which looked ludicrously skimpy when it was produced on Broadway this spring.

Just what the festival actually says about the current state of American play-writing is questionable. Most of the writers ATL discovered in the past have moved on to more visible platforms. If they return, it is usually by way of repaying old favors with a quick one-act. Jory not only acknowledges the built-in talent drain, he says "it is part of our stated purpose. Sure, if Marsha Norman came back, I'd have a good time, but I'm having a good time already. And these playwrights don't go away mad. Anyway, I distrust lifelong playwright/director relationships."

What it means, however, is that the ranks have to replenished annually. To that end, ATL's literary staff read 2,000 scripts this year, winnowing them down to the few dozen worthy of production. Jory made the final choices. Under such circumstances, trend-spotting is probably an arbitrary endeavor. For what it's worth sociologically, the drift this year seemed to be away from the big city and its attendant neuroses, back to the sticks, where the neuroses are no less fierce, perhaps, just more colloquially expressed. The one work that could be construed as addressing the subject of nuclear doom -- Douglas Soderberg's absurdist farce, "The Roots of Chaos" -- took the route of rural metaphor. It was set in a rustic kitchen in Centralia, Pa., the very foundations of which were threatened by a raging underground mine fire. Whenever the clouds of carbon monoxide leaked up through the floorboards, the jeopardized family members donned gas masks as a matter of course and jibbered blithely about other things.

Bible-thumping religion and born-again boobery were also prevailing themes. God spoke to a lot of the characters, or at least, they presumed to hear Him. None was so preposterous as Oletta Crews, the obese Georgia housewife in "The Rain of Terror," who recounted the night an escaped killer turned up in her trailer and held her and her mousy husband hostage. Padded to the hilt ("Doctor says I'm hundreds of pounds overweight!" she crowed), a greasy hairnet tugged down over her forehead, her swollen feet resting wearily on a stack of old National Geographics, actress Kathy Bates chortled and cackled her way through the role -- dribbling ashes on her bosom, quoting Scripture, interrupting her husband peremptorily and generally carrying on like a "Far Side" cartoon come to life. It was the most vivid performance of the festival.

On the surface, "Tent Meeting" was certainly equally preposterous, as it followed the silver-maned Reverend Ed, his dimwitted daughter Becky and his oafish son Darrell on their pilgrimage to Canada, where Reverend Ed planned to baptize Becky's baby, "Jesus O'Tarbox," the new savior. No matter that the baby was born "without vital organs" or that Becky, who kept wads of cotton stuffed in her ears, persisted in calling the child Arlene-Marie. Someone was sending typewritten directives to this family from on high -- if not God Himself, then just maybe the turnip-shaped creature emitting celestial light from the picnic hamper.

It could have been an ecclesiastical sick joke. (To commemorate her child's first birthday, Becky sang an off-key ditty about its conception, "Raped by God.") But "Tent Meeting" was as deceptive as it was entertaining. Even as it excoriated the excesses of fundamentalist religion, it never abandoned its belief in the outlandish, which may be another word for the miraculous. One could both hope and fear for its future and the future of its authors, who suddenly found themselves courted at every turn.

Nothing else in the festival came close, but Jory insists that he feels no mounting pressure from year to year to come up with the goods -- "not as long as the funding is there and we can keep doing what we're doing." (The Humana Foundation Inc., the Louisville-based hospital conglomerate, underwrites an undisclosed portion of the festival expenses, which account for approximately one-third of ATL's annual $3.6 million budget.) "In a good year," Jory says, "four of the plays move into the general repertory. In a bad year, maybe only two. I suppose if we ever got down to one a year, this could be a pretty expensive undertaking."

It didn't quite come to that. And there's always next year's festival to reverse the slide. Nonetheless, one could be forgiven for occasionally mistaking the noise out of Louisville last weekend. It sounded suspiciously like that of a barrel bottom being scraped.