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

Brenda Murray, KeiLyn Durrel Jones. Photo: Russ Rowland.

Previous editions of this annual event have combined one piece by Neil LaBute with works by new writers. This time out, it's ninety minutes of pure LaBute, a format that may not be in the playwright's best interest. A professional provocateur and part-time moral scold -- his dramatic universe is populated almost entirely by the craven and the malicious -- he has, over the past two decades, played every card in his creative deck so relentlessly that no surprises are left. Put another way, his bag of tricks lies open, exposed for all to see. In each of the plays featured here, one feels two steps ahead, fully aware of where the action is headed and impatient over the time it takes to get there.

The title of the first offering, The Fourth Reich, all but gives away its secrets. (This is one of LaBute's confessional pieces, in which a seemingly normal character slowly owns up to some ghastly belief or behavior.) It signals that we will be spending time with a Nazi sympathizer, which is exactly what happens. His name is Karl, and he begins by asking if there is anyone who gets more "bad press" than Hitler. (Amusingly, at the performance I attended, a woman in the audience piped up, "Donald Trump?" -- earning the evening's biggest laugh. Eric Dean White, who plays Karl, handled it deftly, quickly noting that she had a point.) The rest of the piece is a not-very-vigorous pitch for National Socialism, arguing that since the victors get to write history, Adolph and his henchmen have been unfairly maligned. Sure, he adds, six million Jews died, but "that's where the conversation stops? Not for me."

The Fourth Reich is designed to raise moral gooseflesh, but, really, it's just a tease. At best, it contains one or two moments of grisly amusement, including a scathing appreciation of the French people's ability to switch sides in a trice and the fact, heretofore unknown to me, that Hugo Boss designed the SS uniform. Karl isn't really a character; he's merely a mouthpiece for offensive views that are meant to be even more upsetting for being delivered calmly and rationally. After Charlottesville -- and what with the likes of Rep. Steve King babbling about white supremacy -- The Fourth Reich has been thoroughly outstripped by reality. It's less a play than an op-ed from, say, The Daily Stormer or some dark corner of Reddit. White handles the text with all the deftness one could wish, however, under the careful direction of John Pierson.

The second piece, Great Negro Works of Art, is set in a gallery where the current exhibition is named...well, you get the idea. (And, really, what art gallery on planet Earth is likely to use such language? If the word "negro" is being used ironically, it's for LaBute to know and for us to find out.) It's the setting for a blind date between Jerri, a white woman in her thirties, and Tom, a black man about the same age. There's a little bit of lame byplay about their names -- I wonder how many in the audience will be familiar with the once-beloved cartoon characters -- but when LaBute puts this couple onstage in a play with that title, don't expect a display of racial harmony.

Indeed, Jerri -- in what, I suppose, could amount to a bad case of first-date nerves -- manages an epically egregious display of cluelessness. When Tom gently suggests that she probably doesn't know of as many black artists as, says, Pollock or Picasso, she blurts out, "Picasso wasn't black, was she?" Trying to demonstrate her literary bona fides, she announces that she is a fan of James Baldwin, adding, "I read Native Son in school and I thought it was really moving...and I saw the movie of it, too. There might be more than one, but I saw the one that Oprah was in." Continuing to hang herself, she adds, "And Toni Morrison...I like her, too. I didn't read that book, The Color Purple, but I think the film was fantastic. And Beloved as well -- those were both good. And both had Oprah acting in them." By this point, Tom should be discreetly eyeing the exit, but he sticks around long enough for her to complain that he is getting "all uppity" in his attitude.

Obviously, these two need new dating apps. Even more obviously, LaBute would do better not to draw his characters in such caricatured terms. As it is, Tom is so cool-headed and Jerri such a ninny that this indictment of racism is derailed by what appears to be a bad case of misogyny on the part of the author. KeiLyn Durrel Jones -- who excelled in Sparring Partner, another LaBute one-act in the Summer Shorts Series at 59E59 -- and Brenda Meaney do their best to give the script some kind of dramatic line, but Pierson's direction allows for a little too much fidgeting onstage. In any case, Great Negro Works of Art tips its hand much too early. This relationship can't be saved.

The best piece, Unlikely Japan, features Katie, a young bank manager, recounting how, watching a television news report on the mass shooting at a music festival, she learned that among the dead was her long-estranged high school boyfriend. This cues the tale of their relationship, which is marked by some interesting details, including the erotic photograph he made of her on the QT, which won a coveted award. In a way, the taking of the photograph pushes them into an intimacy that she doesn't really feel -- much of the time, she was cheating on him with an older man -- leading her to betray him a manner sufficiently brutal to permanently cut the cord between them. LaBute captures the shiftiness of the youthful Katie's thinking, and, later, the scalding honesty of her self-assessment, but he strains to connect past and present, suggesting a link that doesn't really exist between their romantic problems and his early death. Still, Gia Crovatin, under LaBute's admittedly strong direction -- explores the multiple layers of guilt and denial at the character's core, making Katie the most compelling character of the evening.

The plays have been staged in bare-bones fashion. Patrick Huber's set design uses a single gesture to suggest each location, a strategy that works perfectly well. Megan Harshaw's costumes feel right for the characters, and Jonathan Zelezniak's lighting and Pierson's sound design are solid. But this is a flat collection that fails to raise a single hackle and, as such, finds the playwright at a creative crossroads. In his better recent work, he has shown some empathy, even humor, for his morally cornered characters, but works like these betray a sense of exhaustion; the audience's buttons have been pushed and pushed again, to ever more diminished returns. -- David Barbour

(17 January 2019)

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