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About nine months after Charlotte Repertory Theatre imploded early in 2005, Rep founder Steve Umberger self-produced a new play festival he called "Thinking in Pictures," briefly reviving what had been the company's most vibrant tradition. Now with the first annual nuVoices for a nuGeneration Festival at Actor's Theatre of Charlotte, we can hope a new tradition is beginning. There is an unmistakable kinship between the two events. Four scripts are chosen from hundreds submitted to the company (288 for this festival) from playwrights around the country, and each of the Final Four is given two reading-stage performances, followed by talkbacks when the audience offers its opinion. Differences were also significant. With formal get-togethers, gathering all the participants – actors, directors, and playwrights – at the beginning and end of the festival, nuVoices was more sociable. With talkbacks modeled strictly on the Liz Lerman Critical Response Process, as utilized at the famed O'Neill Conference, audience input was more structured and rigorous. Most significantly, there's a fully-staged production for the script named the festival's best, to be presented immediately after the 2013 nuVoices.
Six judges, including me, were enlisted to attend readings of all four nuVoices plays, put our feedback in writing, and vote for our favorites. Emails are also going out to audience members who saw all four productions so that audience sentiment is also part of the equation when Actor's Theatre announces their winner. With plays that tugged at emotions and tickled funnybones in varied degrees and proportions, the race for top spot will be interesting. In the chronological order of the readings, here is how I assessed the contenders:
Jen Silverman's Still took its inspiration from a forthcoming memoir, Ghostbelly, by Elizabeth Heineman, whom the playwright met while she was in the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Heineman was stung by the treatment she received when she gave birth to a stillborn child, which was hurriedly whisked away from her. She pursued the child to the funeral parlor, where she prevailed upon the director to lend her her own child. The ensuing bonding/healing process included introducing the child to Heineman's home and wheeling it around the neighborhood in a stroller.
Instead of restaging those actions, Silverman imaginatively tries to flip the story by making the dead child a questing character, Constantinople, played by an adult, who is striving to reconnect with his mother before his body turns blue and stiff. Unfortunately, Silverman turns Constantinople's mother into a bitter, academic, self-pitying recluse who huddles in her cellar throughout the play – an exceedingly shrill and annoying woman. What connects mother and child in Silverman's scheme isn't their need for each other – not until the final scenes, anyway – but two intermediaries. On the mother Morgan's side of the stage, there's Elena, the guilt-ridden midwife who had never lost a baby before. To do penance for her guilt, Elena dons a silly mask and shows up for punishment at the room where a dominatrix dwells. Strangely enough, the lost Constantinople shows up on the doorstep of the same dominatrix, Delores, seeking shelter and a way back to Mom. Carrying a child that she doesn't want, Delores quickly grows fond of Constantinople, who seems to be lower-maintenance and shorter-term. Neither Elena, who strangely doesn't recognize Constantinople, nor the jealous/possessive/negative/mixed-up Delores is any help for the ever-trusting baby, who keeps managing to exclaim "Wow!" through all his troubles. Luckily, in accordance to another arbitrary phenomenon Silverman has invented in her fantasy, Constantinople hears his mother calling him, though we certainly haven't seen it. As a result, action on Constantinople's side of the stage was always unexpected, spiced with S&M perversity, and frequently funny while action on Morgan's end was almost invariably angry, sad, and frustrating. A promising fantasy, with a potentially cathartic and medicinal impact, founders in the playwright's infatuation with quirky characters and complications.
Summer on Fire by Mike Bencivenga took us back to 2008 and Fire Island, where a Fox News celeb modeled on Bill O'Reilly is arriving to throw his annual star-studded summer party. Frank Flanagan also wants to throw his seasonal tenants out of his house, but it turns out that the two lesbians, singer Gwynn Simmons and drug-addled Maxie Fleischer, have read the fine print of their lease more carefully than Frank's staffers. Of course, Frank doesn't do damage control either: his Man Friday shows up to coordinate the soiree and, as it turns out, Terry Klein is gay, so he has personal – and political – empathy toward the young ladies. Frank's growing kindliness toward Gwynn has an altogether different foundation. When his ex-wife Fay Boroshenko shows up for the weekend with her new beau, a newly unemployed strategist for Hilary Clinton's presidential campaign, Frank uses his fading charm – and his hot music industry connections – to persuade Gwynn to stay for the party and pose as his new flame after Maxie is resettled nearby on the island.
The stage is set for some tasty sexual betrayals and, when a photo of Frank and Gwynn goes viral, a heated confrontation when Maxie sees it. One audience member saw a budding Neil Simon in the crackle of Bencivenga's quips, and another aptly noted the parallels between this comedy and Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story. The show is obviously a top contender for best show in the 2012 lineup, even though the 2008 campaign is only lightly treated. Brain-for-hire strategist Dale Lawless is at pains to answer for the debacle of the Hilary candidacy, but Frank is never quizzed on the disaster of the Bush 43 presidency or its fallout on the electability of John McCain. Bencivenga's political leanings are as straight-down-the-middle as Norman Lear's, likely a frustration for some theatergoers, and his compulsion to fully develop every character onstage could grow tedious for those who don't revere or remember Barry. The reward of a truly satisfying design, peppered along the way with some choice zingers, decisively won me over.
Though it's set in 2004, Sevan Kaloustian Greene's Narrow Daylight proved to be more urgently topical than Bencivenga's comedy, but this playwright also shied away from the full-tilt controversy that his materials offered. As the play opens, Susan Davis is doubly grieving as a wife and mother. Her husband suddenly collapsed and died at work, and now her son has been killed fighting in Iraq. Paralyzed with grief, Susan hasn't had the heart to even pore through her Nathan's belongings, and she's toying with the idea of selling the house. So it comes as a complete surprise when Lena, a young Iraqi woman, shows up at her front door bearing a letter from Nathan disclosing that he had married this woman shortly before he died. And she's pregnant!
Greatly leavening the animosity that Susan feels toward Lena is the presence of her cheery, prissy, meddlesome next door neighbor Gloria, who clearly adores Susan even more than she comically plagues her. Since Nathan was a longtime beau of her daughter Anne-Marie, Gloria has long regarded the dead soldier with nearly the same love she would have had for her own son. So she welcomes Lena with open arms, especially because she's bearing Nathan's child – the natural reaction, under the circumstances. More and more, I felt like Susan's grieving was pathologically self-absorbed and that her antagonism toward Lena was unnatural. If Lena were a devout or radical Muslim invading Panama City, Florida, I might have understood Susan's attitude far better – and we might have been treated to the heat of a culture clash turned up full blast. But Greene has defused any serious religious skirmishes by making Elena a Christian. While the playwright's decision makes Nathan's marriage and Gloria's reception more plausible, it's the last straw in turning me off to Susan, who should at least show some signs of bending toward warm acceptance while she's generally behaving like a jackass. No such problems for me liking Lena and Gloria. All in all, Narrow Delight is so new and different that it qualifies as the other top contender for a fully-staged production.
The final nuVoices play, Scene of Dreams Bar & Grill NOLA by James Marlow, had a tempting gumbo of ingredients going for it. In post-Katrina New Orleans, Jake Ponte wants to sell his bar so he can travel and become a full-time playwright. A Katrina-sized influx of problems and financial demands seems to make selling the business a sound plan to avoid drowning in debt and expenses. The cook, Elias, reports that the Scene of Dreams has nearly maxed out its credit at the places where they buy oysters and po' boy rolls. Not a good time for Jake's elder brother Bernard and his haunting ex-wife Hermione to drop by after years of enjoying the travel Jake craves – at virtually the same moment with virtually the same urgent need for cash. Add to this perfect storm a waitress, Patty Lee, whose cokehead boyfriend has beaten her up and absconded with her $4,000 nest egg, and you wonder why Jake doesn't simply take his seven-page manuscript and run.
By the time all these complications have unfolded, Marlow has long forgotten Jake's artistic aspirations, so laboriously developed in his opening scene. Jake's attachment to the arts, in the last three acts of this five-act yarn, is confined to helping brother Bernard finish an Aphrodite sculpture for a street parade. It's yet another facet in Jake's championship enabler credentials as he bankrolls Hermione's move to Miami and forks out the dough that Patty Lee needs. To his credit, Marlow has set up the opportunity to make telling statements about artists, husbands, service to your community, brotherly love, spousal abuse, and the special spirit of New Orleans. Instead, Scene of Dreams limps along without delivering anything fresh or wise about any of these subjects. Of course, subsequent drafts could yield dramatic improvements, but Marlow will need to show us that he understands his characters – and his unique setting – far more deeply.