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Theatre in Review: LaBute New Theater Festival (St. Louis Actors' Studio/59E59)

Kelly Schaschl, Autumn Dornfeld in "Winter Break"

Not for the first time, the LaBute New Theater Festival consists of entries that, with their focus on high-concept premises and plot twists, can best be described as of the school of Neil LaBute. The evening kicks off with "Hate Crime," in which two men meet in a hotel room. We quickly learn that they are lovers; Man 2 (as he is named in the script) has a much older partner, whom he basically loathes. As he tells Man 1, while they cast smoldering looks at each other, "The day I get married is the same day that my partner dies... Nobody would ever suspect a thing like that, would they?" The plan is for Man 1 to beat the victim to death, making it look like a case of gay-bashing. Then Man 2 can collect on that hefty insurance policy. Basically, "Hate Crime" is Double Indemnity with an all-male cast.

Possibly LaBute thinks his plot is a necessary corrective to any sentimental notions about same-sex marriage. I hereby declare that gay men are just as likely as heterosexuals to take part in such seedily melodramatic schemes, a fact that doesn't make "Hate Crime" seem remotely fresh or interesting. The action consists of Man 1 -- the more controlling of the two -- insisting that they jointly rehearse the details of the plan, for no apparent reason other than the need to fill the audience in on what they intend to do. Counterproductively, Man 1 keeps trying to seduce his accomplice, who fends him off, insisting, "I can't have a trace of you on me...not anywhere on me...not for a few weeks." Clearly, murder is an aphrodisiac for these two. The big irony here is the old film-noir chestnut that once you plot murder with the man you love, you can never quite trust him again.

John Pierson's staging of these sex-and-murder shenanigans is reasonably taught, and Chauncy Thomas and Spencer Sickmann bring some genuine erotic heat to their pairing. Interestingly, Man 1 is described in the script as seeming "like a regular guy. Regular-looking. Regular build. You know the type. 'Regular'." Actually, I don't, but I'm guessing that the extremely buff-looking Thomas doesn't fit that "regular" bill. In addition, Thomas is black -- LaBute doesn't specify race -- so making his character the perpetrator of a faux hate crime against a gay man adds a touch of provocation not found in the script. Then again, "Hate Crime" can use all the help it can get.

A better title for "Winter Break," the second offering, might be "Help! My Daughter is a Sufi." A few days after Christmas, Joanna, a college student, is packing for a trip to Turkey, where she will spend her holiday from school studying with a noted Sufi mystic; she has renamed herself Aisha and is now a practicing Sufi Muslim. Although the family's name (Khouri) has a Middle-Eastern ring, and one of Joanna's grandmothers was a religious Muslim in her youth, everyone is up in arms. Well, not Joanna's father, who is glued to the television in another room, but her mother, Kitty, and brother, Bailey, are in a tizzy. Bailey is convinced that the trip is a ruse, that Joanna is heading off to become a jihadi.

James Haigney's play consists of endless circular conversations in which accusations are hurled but never fully addressed. Kitty accuses Joanna of "kicking Jesus to the curb." "You and Dad don't even believe in Jesus," Joanna replies. Kitty, wounded, adds, "But we're still Episcopalians!" When Joanna professes her deep love of Allah, Kitty says, "Isn't God, aka Allah, supposed to be everywhere. You can just as well love him as an intern at JP Morgan." Bailey, who is gay, is horrified at Joanna's newfound piety, stealing her passport and challenging her to announce, "Je suis Charlie Hebdo." There is a big to-do over the fact that Bailey, having borrowed Joanna's Koran, accidentally left a condom on top, leading her to bury the book in the backyard.

As exchanges go, those in "Winter Break" are even less illuminating than any duel between talking heads on a cable news show. (It's never clear how Joanna ended up an expert in a relatively obscure branch of Islam, or how she supposedly attracted the attention of a religious leader thousands of miles away.) Joanna is possessed of a grandly condescending manner toward her elders that, in my day, would have caused one to be sent to bed without supper; Kelly Schaschl does little to make her seem less insufferable. Pierson's direction is remarkably overwrought; Sickmann's performance is borderline hysterical, full of jaw-grinding and barked-out line deliveries. Autumn Dornfeld can't do much with the irritatingly superficial Kitty.

The finale, "Percentage America," certainly has an original premise: Arial and Andrew are on a blind date that is a non-starter until they both begin to cop to the many lies embedded in their online portraits. This burst of honesty ignites a little flame of desire, which is fanned when Arial describes how two friends engaged in an unusual form of foreplay: "They deciphered the evening news." By way of explanation, she adds, "What they did was they located one story. Then they turned on all of their television sets, all their screens, phones, laptops, everything. They put Fox News on one, CNN on one, and MSNBC or whatever on one, and they accumulated all the differing versions. And then they tried to decipher the middle ground, the closest thing to real...Then they took that middle ground and they extracted all the super adjectives...all the hyperbole, like insidious, shocking, ruthless, cold-blooded fatalistic, horrific, cataclysmic -- well, you get the idea."

Indeed, we do, and so does Andrew, who, by this point, is getting pretty hot and bothered. They decide to prep for a night of romance by getting the goods on a trending story about an incident involving a teenage girl in the White House Rose Garden. Although he is a pharmacist and she an assistant banquet manager, they are residents of Washington, DC, and they seem to have endless access to confidential news sources; very soon, the game is afoot.

The linkage between sexual desire and honest news reporting is, at best, a tenuous one, and, for most of its running time, "Percentage America" consists of an unconvincing idea pushed to laborious extremes. A last-minute reach for seriousness is little better. The play does give Dornfeld and Thomas the opportunity to display their comic chops, although Schaschl struggles with the task of impersonating any number of news anchors and the poor, beleaguered girl in the Rose Garden. Pierson, at least, maintains a fast pace; as the production's sound designer, he also provides a witty montage of various unctuous news broadcast musical intros. Overall, this is an unimpressive lineup, with all three plays weighed down by thinly drawn characters and plots that don't really track. Maybe LaBute isn't the right muse for the festival that bears his name. -- David Barbour

(16 January 2018)

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