In an era when live theater is overshadowed by the electronic media and writers routinely view the stage as a way station on the road to Hollywood or Television City, it's a pleasure to encounter an anthology that treats avant-garde drama as an end in itself. Anyone searching for evidence that what Variety calls "legit" is still a realm of adventure and magic need look no further than Martin Denton's Plays and Playwrights 2004 (The New York Theatre Experience, Inc., 422 pages, $16), the fifth volume in a series that began in 2000 with Plays and Playwrights for the New Millennium.

The series consists of annual compendiums of new work from Off-Off-Broadway in attractive, softbound editions that are durable enough to withstand library circulation and use as actors' scripts. In addition to the play texts, each volume includes accounts of production history, biographical sketches of the authors, directions for obtaining rights to produce the plays, and a critical introduction by Denton.

Plays and Playwrights 2004 contains 10 scripts that were produced in New York between September 2002 and August 2003. This year's entries were performed at such venues as Altered Stages Theater, the Bottle Factory Theater, Chashama, HERE Arts Center, the Red Room, and Soho Rep's Walkerspace. But, for most of the 2004 dramatists, Denton's anthology marks their print debut. Judging by the number of selections, this crop may seem leaner than in the past; there were 11 plays in last year's volume, for instance, and 16 in 2001. But those numbers are misleading: This year's array of scripts includes fewer one-acts and more full-evening pieces than previous anthologies.

The most striking things about the plays that Denton has included this year are the high quality of dialogue writing and the works' distinctive theatricality. None of the 2004 selections are screenplays making a reluctant detour Off-Off-Broadway; these are works that belong on stage, written by playwrights with a knack for dramatic, especially verbal, technique. Michael Stock's Feed the Hole, for example, has unusually adroit scene structure; Brian Sloan's WTC View offers well-paced, psychologically plausible narrative; and United States: Work and Progress, a collaboration among Christy Meyer, Jon Schumacher, and Ellen Shanman, is a provocative series of monologues assembled from interviews with doctoral candidates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Denton's 2004 volume is indicative of what has occupied -- or, rather, preoccupied -- the American avant-garde during the past several months. David Pumo's comedy-drama Auntie Mayhem is severely critical of the child welfare system and reflects the increased advocacy for same-sex marriage and the parental rights of gay couples, especially the right of adoption. Like another of Denton's choices, the historical drama The Shady Maids of Haiti by John Jahnke, Auntie Mayhem is a bellwether of change in the country's racial, sexual, and gender politics. Not surprisingly, many -- perhaps most -- of the 2004 plays have been shaped decisively by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Sloan's WTC View focuses on the explicit effect of those "recent events" on a long-time resident of lower Manhattan. In Frank Cwiklik's Sugarbaby, on the other hand, those events are embedded in the drama's complex social background.

Denton, a former Marriott executive, has transformed his passion for theater into a career by founding the nonprofit industry service organization The New York Theatre Experience, Inc., and establishing himself as its executive director. As editor of Plays and Playwrights, he has sometimes been accused of favoring works of conventional bent, but that's unfair. Over these five years, Denton has made ample room for experimental work in his anthologies. If this year's plays are less abstract and more traditionally plotted, that's a sign of how comforting narrative moorings have been in the social and psychological tumult of the 9/11 aftermath.

The New York Theatre Experience, which is supported by funds from the New York State Council on the Arts and private donations, uses "new and traditional media" to help "playwrights, actors, directors, and producers reach larger audiences" and to help "audience members learn about the creative and innovative new work being done by theater artists." The organization operates, a specialty web site featuring reviews, news coverage, show listings, and theater seating charts and providing online access to tickets. Last summer, fielded a 78-member volunteer "reviewing squad" to cover all theatrical events associated with the New York International Fringe Festival, raising awareness of that event and giving emerging playwrights the kind of public attention seldom available on the outskirts of the industry.

Plays and Playwrights appears to have become an integral part of the mission of The New York Theatre Experience, Inc. What the Best Plays volumes are to mainstream New York theater, Plays and Playwrights is becoming for the alternative scene. Best Plays, founded by Burns Mantle in 1920, has had ample time to establish itself; Plays and Playwrights is rapidly carving out its own important niche and helping to make the new millennium friendly to theater artists.


Contents of Plays and Playwrights 2004:

Sugarbaby by Frank Cwiklik
WTC View by Brian Sloan
United States: Work and Progress by Christy Meyer, Jon Schumacher and Ellen Shanman
The Shady Maids Of Haiti by John Jahnke
Cats Can See the Devil by Tom X. Chao
Survivor: Vietnam! by Rob Reese
Feed the Hole by Michael Stock
Auntie Mayhem by David Pumo
The Monster Tales by Mary Jett Parsley
Sun, Stand Thou Still by Steven Gridley