STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: FutureFest in Ohio

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: FutureFest in Ohio Noel Coward used to sing about attending a marvelous party, but however good it was, I'm sure he didn't have nearly as good a time as I did at FutureFest '97.

Noel Coward used to sing about attending a marvelous party, but however good it was, I'm sure he didn't have nearly as good a time as I did at FutureFest '97.

FutureFest is a new-play festival that's been annually held for seven years. Out of hundreds of submitted scripts, six are selected. Three get staged readings, but the three plays with the simplest demands get full productions. That means sets, costumes, and lighting, with actors off book and genuinely performing.

For all of one performance, for only one audience and a panel of five judges, who choose a winning play and award its playwright a $1,000 prize out of FutureFest's $14,000 budget.

Now here's the kicker: FutureFest takes place at the Dayton Playhouse.

Yes, in Dayton, OH. Oh, you're saying, I didn't know Dayton had a LORT house.

It doesn't. The Dayton Playhouse is a community theater. Its managing director, Tina McPherson, and its board president, David Seyer, bring up their amateur status in every other conversation you have with them. They never want you to think they're too big for their britches.

But they really are big, dynamic, and accomplished. They head an all volunteer outfit that does a six-play season -- then FutureFest, which, McPherson estimates, takes 143,000 hours of man-and-womanpower.

It obviously pays off. Glenn Rawls' Moments from Meanwhile, last year's FutureFest winner, was such a one-night wonder that McPherson -- a positively smashing woman cut from the same bolt of expensive cloth as Chita Rivera -- had to schedule it for a genuine run this season. Seyer, a Broadway fan extraordinaire, agreed, so they'll present it March 6-22, 1998 for their 1,100 subscribers.

There are many more theater aficionados in Dayton. Drop by Marion's Piazza, a nearby eatery that covers its walls with pictures of the Kenley Circuit cast parties of yesteryear. There's Karen Morrow in The Most Happy Fella. Vicki Carr in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Anita Bryant in Do I Hear a Waltz? Dolores Gray and Hal Linden in. . . what? The picture wasn't captioned. (Anyone know?)

Then, of course, there's the Victoria Theatre where road shows draw big crowds. Master Class was in town earlier this year, and while people liked the show, they sure didn't enjoy Faye Dunaway's demanding behavior. (She reportedly went through three chauffeurs.) So, after she moved out, one of the Victoria's head honchos had T-shirts made for the staff that said "I survived Master Class" on the front, and, on the back, "We've Dunaway with Faye."

Yes, Daytonians are passionate about their playgoing. But the biggest proof is that they pack a 185-seat theater for six plays nobody's ever heard of.

Five judges were flown in from New York. Esteemed director Robert Kalfin; Roger Danforth, the artistic director of Drama League's Director's Project; Steven Samuels, the senior editor at TCG; Helen Sneed, the executive director of the Musical Theatre Alliance; and me.

Weeks before the Festival, we were sent the plays, and asked to rank them 1-to-6. That would count for 40 percent of the vote; the other 60 percent would be our possibly revised opinions after we saw the shows. (Plays, after all, are meant to be played.) While the fully staged productions would seem to have an advantage, two of the last three winners were plays that only received staged readings.

"But we want you to consider yourself all winners," said McPherson said in her kickoff speech. "265 other people are sitting home watching Clueless, and you're here." In that spirit, let's cite the winning aspects of the six plays, in the order they were presented.

Aubergine Days by Roy C. Berkowitz. An AIDS-afflicted man keeps repainting the walls of his apartment, to the consternation of his shrink lover. Winner of Best Line (One of the shrink's female patients notes that "It takes a good man to be better than no man at all."). First Prize for being the first play to use rugulach as an important plot point.

First prize for being the first play to show two men kissing, too. No one stood up, crumpled his program, threw it to the ground, and stomped his way out. During the long, lingering kiss, there wasn't even a certifiable amount of tension in the house. The audience was into the story, and wasn't ruffled by the sex. Wow!

The Amistad Case by William Baer. John Quincy Adams is brought out of near-retirement to represent a slave who murdered his captor. Winner of Best Character. I mean, who thinks about John Quincy Adams? Even in 1776, he's only mentioned by his mother as a kid who's sick. Nice to see him as a respected elder statesman.

Quicker's Crackers by Michael Latshaw. A newspaper columnist investigates a cookie factory where all the employees are over 65, and all the cracker-boxes list "Love" as the main ingredient. Latshaw gets the honor of Best Return Engagement, for his last play, The Bride Hesitates had been produced at FutureFest '96. He's suddenly the unofficial resident playwright of the Dayton Playhouse.

The Interview by Fran Sholiton. Winner of Best Conflict. (A concentration camp survivor winds up psychologically injuring her daughter, who has her own Holocaust issues.) Second Prize for being the second play to use rugulach as an important plot point.

The Starfish Scream by Brent Hartinger. Winner of Best Theme (Eric's a gay teen, Allen is not -- but love conquers sexuality). Second prize for being the second play to show two men kissing.

All right, not one viewer had displayed dissatisfaction at the first male kiss. But how would the second go over? Would this be enough to push them past the breaking point?

Nope. Both audiences reacted calmly. If there were any blanching, swooning, or uncomfortable coughing, I didn't notice it. Nancy Campbell, who'd directed Aubergine so sensitively, later saluted the crowd for its indulgence. "Thanks for going with us instead of going away from us."

That happened during one of the post-play discussions. After each of us judges gave a TV-commentary length opinion, the audience gave its questions, comments, and criticisms. Should Aubergine have resorted to an aside in a play that hadn't used the convention during its first half-hour? Mustn't Starfish show Eric's constantly mentioned disapproving father to make for better drama?

After Quicker's, one spectator said she especially liked Latshaw's poem-within-a-play that offered a refreshing look at old age. "I wonder if I could have a copy," she asked Latshaw.

Within hours, McPherson had had the poem printed on three different-colored papers in case you preferred red to white to blue. Does this woman care about her customers, or what?

FutureFest came to an end with Perpetual Care by Preston Ransone. A playwright decides to write about his aunt's murder, to the consternation of his two surviving (and guilty) aunts. Winner of Best Pedigree. (Ransone's credits included a TV-movie judged one of 10 Best of 1980 by TV Guide).

The 43 FutureFest actors (no one doubled) once again reminded me that there's real talent in community theater. Many of these people just preferred marriage, children, and secure careers instead of a life where they'd continually be singing, "God, I hope I get it." Some gave performances as good as the ones I see professionally in the theater-rich New York city area, such as Marc Lewallen as the afflicted lover and Janet Brucken as the shrink's client in Aubergine; Rodney Player in a last minute takeover as the slave in Amistad; Nuggie Libecap as an uppity girlfriend in Quicker's; Dodie Lockwood as the Holocaust survivor and Mary Jo Schuster as her daughter in The Interview; Donna Walters as the more circumspect aunt in Perpetual.

But it was Joe Hynes who gave the performance of the Festival as the straight boy in Starfish. Hynes not only had charm, warmth, and intelligence, but the 24-year-old also directed the reading. Even more impressive: As his once-and-future-boyfriend, Hynes cast Trent Buehler, who'd never in his life been onstage before. You could have fooled me.

The Interview took first prize by mere percentage points. Exclaimed Sholiton, "I called my husband, told him to take out the address book, go from A-to-Z, and call everyone."

At Festival's end, we were each invited to say a word to the crowd. I said that I was so moved by what I'd seen that I just had to write about it for Playbill-On-Line. The moment I finished, McPherson rushed up to me and said, "Whenwillitbeout?"

"Whenwillitbeout?" is what every columnist hears whenever he says he'll write about a subject. People are anxious to see their names in print.

Except that McPherson wasn't asking because she wanted to aggrandize herself. She immediately followed "Whenwillitbeout?" with "Because if you can get it in by September 30th -- which is our submissions deadline for next year's FutureFest -- then we'll get more scripts to choose from."

What did I tell you? A positively smashing woman with a positively devoted group of play readers who are ready to put in 143,000 more hours for FutureFest '98.

Okay, playwrights, no excuse now. Stop reading and start sending to The Dayton Playhouse, c/o Tina McPherson, Managing Director, 1301 E. Siebenthaler Ave., Dayton, OH 45414. Your entry must be a full-length original (non-adaptation) play. No musicals or children's plays. Nothing previously produced or published. But there's no restriction of subject, style or treatment -- as all six plays proved.

Let's hope you hear from them whether you win or lose. Because we may have seen our last FutureFest. The Playhouse's funding comes from the city, which is leaning towards stopping the subsidy.

That worries me. And yet I'm not too worried. McPherson and Seyer are going to find a way. In fact, they already have. FutureFest is the classiest community theater event in the country. The City of Dayton saw that. When push comes to shove, it will do the right thing.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star Ledger
You can e-mail him at PFilichia@aol.com