Saturday, January 30, 2016

LaBute New Theater Festival **

St. Louis Actors’ Studio has produced this festival of one-act plays for the last three years with Neil LaBute serving on the selection jury and contributing one play each year. 59E59 Theater has brought six plays from the festival to New York. As with any such collection I have attended, the results are mixed. Of the six plays, only one and a half made a strong impression on me. 

“Stand up for Yourself” by British playwright Lexi Wolfe introduces us to the free-spirited 26-year-old Lila (Alicia Smith) who flirts with Lucas (Mark Ryan Anderson), a rather somber 42-year-old professor with a cane, at a London party. It’s a pity that the actors were saddled with less than successful British accents rather than just relocating the play to our shores. 

“Present Tense” by Peter Grandbois and Nancy Bell follows the difficult face-to-face encounter of an adulterous couple Debra (Jenny Smith) and Martin (Justin Ivan Brown) whose previous intimate relations have been via their laptops and cellphones. It is basically a sketch that wears out its welcome rapidly.

“Two Irishmen Are Digging a Ditch” by G.D. Kimble is awkwardly divided into two scenes. The first is an unnerving overheated monologue by the naked and battered Doyle (a powerful Anderson), an apparent victim of the Northern Irish troubles confronting his unseen captors. I wish the play had ended there. The second scene presents Hagerty (Brown) digging a ditch under the supervision of Evans (Neil Magnuson), a man in a lawn chair. Their connection and the relationship of the scene with the previous one ultimately become clear. For me, at least, it diminished rather than enhanced the force of the first half.

in “The Comeback Special” by JJ Strong, Bonnie (Alicia Smith) and Jesse (Michael Hogan) are a young couple visiting Graceland who slip into the master bedroom where they encounter none other than Elvis himself (Magnuson), who is trapped in a purgatory of sorts by the ignominious nature of his demise and requests the couple’s assistance to make his departure. It’s pretty slim.

“Coffee House, Greenwich Village” by John Doble is the setting for a blind date by Jack (Anderson) and Pamela (Jenny Smith), readers of the personals column in The New York Review of Books. Their attempts to find something in common lead off into the realm of fantasy and a rather drastic comeuppance for their annoying waiter (Brown). Nichols and May might have made something more entertaining out of this.

Last and best is LaBute’s contribution “Kandahar.” An unnamed soldier (Hogan) recently back from Afghanistan is sitting at a table facing us explaining the reasons for the violent crime he has just committed. In contrast to the emotional outburst in the monologue in Kimble’s play, LaBute’s character remains chillingly calm, which makes the situation all the more disturbing. Hogan is brilliant. I hope we will see more of him.

The production values are rather basic. Patrick Huber’s set design is simple in the extreme. The set changes between plays are a bit awkward, but are accompanied by musical selections that comment, sometimes amusingly, on the previous play. The costumes by Carla Evans are very good. Hogan and Anderson are standouts among the cast. Of the five new playwrights, I thought that G.D. Kimble showed the most promise. Directors Milton Zoth and John Pierson are unobtrusively effective. The evening had its moments, but they were relatively few. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission.

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