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

Eric Dean White, Justin Ivan Brown in "American Outlaws." Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The winners of this new-play festival, named for the noted playwright Neil LaBute, seem to have been chosen mostly for their LaButian characteristics, including a sour, misanthropic view of male-female relations and a taste for outrageous plot twists. LaBute himself kicks off the evening with "What Happens in Vegas," which concentrates heavily on the former. In the dark, we hear cries of sexual pleasure. The lights come up on a man and a woman in a moment of apparent post-coital bliss. It only takes a page or two of dialogue for us to realize that she is a prostitute. And what a pro she is, carrying on as if she has just had the erotic time of her life. He's instantly ready for another session, but, as she delicately points out, he didn't buy the combo package; helpfully, she produces a menu, which specifies a price for everything from small talk to something called a "dirty Sanchez." (If you must know, look it up.)

The menu idea is clever -- I couldn't help wondering what Nichols and May or Woody Allen would do with it -- but LaBute is more interested in the inherent falsity of this strictly business relationship. Interestingly, the lady is a stickler for the truth, getting her customer to admit that he is cheating on his wife. There are some piquant details -- you'll never guess what he does for a living -- but, overall, the piece is dramatically slack and the main point is more than a little obvious. The director, Kel Haney, gets excellent work from his actors, however: Michael Hogan sheds his nice-guy manner, one line at a time, and Clea Alsip is amusingly disingenuous throughout; the look on her face, just before the finale, speaks volumes.

In "American Outlaws," edgy, frightened, middle-aged Mitch meets up in a restaurant with suave, ice-cold Martin. The latter is a hit man, and Mitch is hiring him to kill his unfaithful wife. Martin is an unusual choice for the job, to say the least, for reasons I can't reveal. Safe to say, it is a thoroughly implausible twist that leads to a faked-death plot, which makes even less sense. That John Pierson's direction can't work up much drama may not be his fault, given the thoroughly contrived proceedings. Eric Dean White and Justin Ivan Brown give it their all; Brown is oddly convincing as the kind of killer you might find in, say, a novel by Lee Child.

"Homebody" features Jay, a frustrated novelist in his late 30s, who wants nothing more than to curl up on the couch with a copy of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Alas, his mother, who seems permanently affixed to her club chair -- her knees bother her, you see -- keeps asking him to go to the kitchen for this, that, and the other thing. He responds with insults -- and in answer to a request for soup, he rudely slaps down an unopened can of Campbell's on the table next to her. It didn't help that, a couple of nights earlier, I had seen The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which features a similar situation, but, in any case, Gabe McKinley's script is thin and repetitious. The apparent mother-son stalemate -- she is not above reminding him that he is a loser -- is shaken up when an editor from a major publishing company contacts Jay, eager to publish his novel; if you think relations between Jay and his mom will improve, you are way off base. Aside from a funny rant, by Jay, about Oprah's Book Club, "Homebody" is a mass of contrivances unsupported by convincing characters. There's good work from Hogan, who is unrecognizable from "What Happens in Vegas," and, as his mother, Donna Weinsting has a nice way of being sweet and venomous at the same time. Pierson's direction is notably lacking in tension.

The final piece, "Mark My Worms," is more from the school of David Ives, as it hinges on a single joke pushed to wild extremes. John, a theatre director, summons Mason and Gloria for his latest project. He gushes that he has "a play by LaSalle Montclare that the world has never seen!" The late Montclare was, apparently, a noted absurdist, and Mason, who shows up first, is bemused to learn that the playwright's words are to be spoken exactly as written -- typos and all. Thus, Mason is required to enter, weapon in hand, announcing, "I've got a bun!" He adds, "Come out or I'll hoot!" And, of course, John requires Mason to hoot like an owl.

This gag wears out its welcome as soon as it appears; a really clever writer might get about ten minutes of laughs out of it, but the jokes planted by the playwright, Cary Pepper, are so lame that irritation quickly sets in. As John, Brown gives a fairly standard swish characterization, although you'd never know that the same actor played Martin, the hit man, in "American Outlaws." White, his "American Outlaws" co-star, does his best as Mason, but what fun there is comes from Alsip as Gloria, who, having read a PhD thesis on Montclare's work, is only too ready to explain the meaning of it all in her best plummy British accent. Hogan directed, apparently aiming for screwball comedy; at least, he keeps it fast-moving.

As you might imagine, Patrick Huber's set design and Jonathan Zelezniak's lighting are both fairly basic. Carla Evans' costumes are suitable for each character. The sound design, credited to St. Louis Actors' Studio, includes an interesting folk arrangement of "I'd Do Anything," from Oliver! to open "Homebody." But, there's really little of interest here as a showcase for playwrights; the LaBute Theater Festival turns out to be more useful as a calling card for its talented cast. -- David Barbour

(23 January 2017)

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