The Lowndes Shakespeare Center in Loch Haven Park plays host to a number of prestigious theater performances every year; the year-round Orlando Shakespeare Theater, the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival and the Harriet Lake Festival of New Plays welcome thousands of theater patrons from Orlando and elsewhere. But a really important event occurred last weekend with almost no public notice, because you weren't invited.

The National New Play Network's sixth annual National Showcase of New Plays, held Dec. 5-7 at the Shakes, was an invite-only affair for NNPN members and selected media. By providing professionally performed staged readings of new scripts, the showcase acts as, to quote NNPN's website, "a unique and invaluable opportunity for dozens of production-ready new plays to be viewed by artistic directors, literary managers, literary agents, publishers, and independent producers from around the country." Something must be working, since of the 67 scripts the group has featured since 2002, 35 have gone on to full productions at professional theaters.

Sharr White's Sunlight pits an embattled university president (OST's director of education Bob Dolan) against his son-in-law (Rus Blackwell), a law school dean and neo-con "enhanced interrogation" apologist, in a battle over the soul of their school. The aging, liberal lion rages petulantly against his former protégé's assaults on "his" institution's honor, with his embittered attorney daughter (Katherine Michelle Tanner) played as a pawn between them. The dialogue shifts between dark comedy — mostly courtesy of the president's feisty octogenarian assistant (Diane Findlay) — and impassioned political dialogue on the state of individual liberty in the aftermath of 9/11. Director Jasson Minadakis and his cast skillfully handled the emotionally complex topics the play touches on. In particular, Blackwell (one of the best actors I've had the privilege of working with) left me with an unexpected empathy of odious Bush-enablers like former assistant to the attorney general John Yoo, co-author of the infamous Bybee torture memos. (I only pray that the Obama administration quickly turns terrifyingly relevant plays like these into dated period pieces.)

In Steven Dietz's Yankee Tavern, a graduate student (Michael Marinaccio) and his fiancée (Brittney Rentschler) operate the eponymous drinking establishment, a New York bar nearing demolition. Their sole patron is Ray (Hank Stone), a charismatic crackpot with a conspiracy theory for every occasion. Enter Palmer (Tom Nowicki), a mysterious man with evidence that sheds new light on Ray's Sept. 11 ranting. As the story slid from satire into thriller, I was especially compelled by Stone's portrait of a man whose crazy compulsions grant him clarity. Dietz doesn't fully tip his hand on whether or not he's truly taken with Ray's allegations, most of which have been convincingly debunked by Popular Mechanics and Screw Loose Change. But wherever the truth lies, this conspiracy makes for compelling paranoia-inducing drama.

Since these are still works-in-progress, and the reading format allows for little rehearsal and even less visual staging, I'm forbidden from a formal review, but I can say I was very pleased with the potential of the shows I saw, as well as the efficient organization of the event (thanks to Shakes' Patrick Flick and David Lee). I'm now even more excited for January's Playfest!, which will include a reading of Yankee Tavern and a workshop of NNTN's Missing Celia Rose.

I experienced a different kind of new play last Saturday night over at Sleuths Mystery Dinner Shows on International Drive. I understand why dinner theater has an unsavory reputation among many aesthetes; a childhood of Medieval Times trips and a stint performing in Tony n' Tina's Wedding has left me with a lingering love/hate relationship to the art form. But if you haven't experienced interactive gastro-tainment recently, you may want to give Sleuth's a shot. Their latest Holidaze whodunit (scripted by my friend Christian Kelty) is a silly satire of reality television, beauty-pageant politics and small-town "holidaze" traditions. As with similar shows, the plot is perfunctory and the mystery's answer arbitrary. Still, I laughed out loud at the surreal snark, like the trailer-park queen who can only communicate through '80s pop-song lyrics. It's the performer's pedigrees that should draw you to the production; the rotating cast list includes local luminaries Peg O'Keef, Michael Marinaccio, Heather Leonardi, Elizabeth Murf, Eric Pinder and other notables.

As far as the food goes, my prime rib was a better piece of meat than anything I've eaten in my last few visits to an unnamed Australian-themed steak chain, and the bottomless Amber Bock wasn't watered down. Because nothing says "season's greetings" like unlimited alcohol.

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