On a spare white West Virginia stage representing a rented New York City studio, a barefoot man is dancing to Marvin Gaye. His movements — gentle hip isolations, jauntily rocking forearms — are subtle but rapt, suggesting the exhilaration of creativity. He is a contemporary father, with worries to spare, but he is forging an identity as an artist.
The moment, from the solo show “Antonio’s Song: I Was Dreaming of a Son,” might be an emblem for the 2019 Contemporary American Theater Festival. This year’s edition of the nationally renowned new play forum in Shepherdstown, W.Va., features six works — including four world premieres — performed in rotating repertory. Most of the scripts are highly polished and enjoyable, and (as is standard at this annual showcase) the acting and production values are top of the line.
Other common denominators are discernible, too. Perhaps not surprisingly in the era of #MeToo and myriad female political candidates, several of the works ponder male anxiety. On a more timeless front, these plays often dwell on the spectacle of humans building their own reality.
Both of those themes certainly surface in “Antonio’s Song,” a moving monologue by Dael Orlandersmith and Antonio Edwards Suarez. Vibrantly performed by Suarez, whose biography inspired it, the piece recalls in jazzily poetic style the coming-of-age of a Brooklynite of mixed-race heritage. The first 20 minutes are slow and exude self-absorption, but the play gathers breadth and urgency, describing the narrator’s dysfunctional family and swaggering childhood friends and recounting his quest to become a “citizen of the world.”
Mark Clements directs the production, which gains texture from moments of dance — as when the narrator conjures his studio brainstorming sessions. (Alexandra Beller is choreographer and movement director; Jared Mezzocchi designed the atmospheric projections.)
The narrator of “Antonio’s Song” broods about the nature of masculinity, and so do the characters in Ellen Fairey’s amusing comedy “Support Group for Men.” Premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2018, the play depicts a group of vulnerable Chicago guys who meet for a weekly sharing session, passing around a talking stick made out of a baseball bat. The discussion — on topics such as sexuality, aging and the annoying properties of phone apps — pitches into crisis one evening after the friends attempt to intervene during an assault in a nearby alley. Courtney Sale directs the entertaining production, whose standout performances include Scott Aiello as a glowering construction worker with a secret and Juan Arturo as a high-energy Apple Store employee.
Self-doubt grips most of the characters in Fairey’s play. Comparable insecurities intermittently plague the two protagonists in “Chester Bailey,” Joseph Dougherty’s keenly observed, beautifully written tale about guilt and psychological resilience in World War II-era America. Consisting largely of interwoven monologues, the piece is a luminous showcase for father-son actors Reed Birney (a 2016 Tony winner for “The Humans”) and Ephraim Birney (of “Admissions” earlier this year at D.C.’s Studio Theatre).
Directed by Ron Lagomarsino, who staged the play at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater in 2016, the appealingly animated Ephraim Birney channels an injured Navy yard worker who feels ashamed that his domestic war work has kept him away from the military front lines, and the magnetically understated Reed Birney depicts a psychiatrist engaged in an adulterous affair. Luciana Stecconi’s set (evoking an iconic train station) and John Ambrosone’s gorgeous lighting add to the haunting mood.
Vastly less successful is the other play with a historical setting: Deborah Brevoort’s “My Lord, What A Night.” This creaky drama draws on a real 1937 incident, when world-renowned singer Marian Anderson (Angela Wildflower) was turned away from a whites-only inn in Princeton, N.J., prompting Albert Einstein (John Leonard Pielmeier) to invite her to stay at his house. Brevoort (“The Women of Lockerbie,” etc.) adds in a visit by civil rights strategist Mary Church Terrell (Lizan Mitchell), who strives to nudge Anderson toward more direct political advocacy.
Staged by CATF founding producing director Ed Herendeen, “My Lord” benefits hugely from Pielmeier’s endearing portrait of the disheveled, enthusiastic Einstein, who at one point bounces up and down with sheer excitement while speaking of Mozart. (Pielmeier is, incidentally, better known as the writer of 1979’s “Agnes of God” and other scripts.) Mitchell’s rendering of the feisty Terrell is also delightful. But the play wears its research heavily, regularly trotting out from-the-annals factoids and bits of educational exposition, and the dialogue is often too blunt. The themes of racism, anti-Semitism and systemic injustice are all too timely, but the dramatic package is stodgy.
“My Lord” shows its characters turning setbacks into opportunities to advance the cause of civil rights. In a wholly different vein, Greg Kalleres’s sly and diverting dark comedy “Wrecked” also depicts characters determinedly rewriting adverse circumstances — in this case, the fallout from a disturbing car accident. Directed by Shelley Butler, this funny, deftly unsettling piece displays the absurd and destructive sides of romantic relationships. Julia Coffey, Chris Thorn, Megan Bartle and Tom Coiner exhibit fine comic timing as they embody the tale’s two bickering, reminiscing couples.
The festival’s biggest failure is “A Welcome Guest: A Psychotic Fairy Tale,” a flabby dystopian fable about hospitality gone wrong in post-apocalyptic America. Playwright Michael Weller apparently intends this baroque play, directed by Herendeen, to be a parable about geopolitical conflict and xenophobic prejudice. But the slack writing in the piece — whose central characters are patriarchy-espousing Christian rock musicians (Kate Udall and Lou Sumrall) — undermines its effectiveness. “Why are the Rottweilers upset?” a character asks at one point, after a burst of offstage barking. The dogs probably want to be in a better play.
Contemporary American Theater Festival. Through July 28 at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va. Tickets: $37-$67. 304-876-3473, 800-999-CATF or catf.org.