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

Mark Ryan Anderson in Two Irishnmen are Digging a Ditch Photo: Carol Rosegg

Since this is the LaBute New Theater Festival, it's fitting that the most striking offering is the most LaButian: G. D. Kimble's Two Irishmen are Digging a Ditch, which has the audacity and twisty plotting that one has come to associate with the festival's namesake. I hesitate to tell too much, except to note that it is set in Ireland, involves two killings (one in retribution for the other), and unfolds in two scenes, one keyed to a fever pitch and the other almost Beckettian in its understatement. Also, in all likelihood, you won't fully grasp what has happened until the final moment. The gifted young actor Mark Ryan Anderson is so striking in the opening scene, delivering a furiously intense monologue while naked and made up to look bloody and beaten, that it seems a little unkind to note that his Irish accent needs work. Nevertheless, he makes a startling impression in a performance that should act as a real attention-getter. The second scene is well-handled by Justin Ivan Brown and Neil Magnuson. Kimble is something of a new name in these parts, and I'm eager to see more of what he can do.

The rest of the program, save the single contribute by LaBute himself, is pretty thin stuff. In second place is JJ Strong's The Comeback Special, in which a young couple stops off at Graceland, erstwhile home of King Elvis, while driving to New Orleans. She is bubbly and a little bubble-headed; he's a bit of a music snob and is kind of embarrassed to be there. (He can't stop mentioning that Presley's music is "derivative," having been lifted wholesale from the black blues tradition.) Feeling frisky, she sneaks past the velvet ropes and tries to convince him to take her right there in Elvis' bed. In the middle of their argument, guess who shows up?

It appears that Elvis, having died on the toilet, is caught in some kind of existential snare that leaves him trapped between this world and the next, and he wonders if this nice young couple would oblige him by finishing him off once again. Strong doesn't do nearly enough with this premise -- The Comeback Special is a scattered piece with only a couple of solid laughs -- but that it is even as good as it is a testament to the skill of Michael Hogan and Alicia Smith as the lovers and Magnuson as the pudgy, blow-dried late-career Elvis, who, when not wielding a pistol, tends to drift off into a drug-induced haze.

As for the others, Lexi Wolfe's Stand Up For Oneself is a predictable sketch about a flighty, flirty young lady at a party who focuses her attentions on a rather sad-looking man sitting in a corner, holding a cane. Smith is plausible as the party girl with more to her than is at first apparent, but Anderson is decades younger than his character, and adding a bit of white clown makeup to his temples doesn't do the job. Present Tense, by Peter Grandbois and Nancy Bell, is a one-joke affair about a couple whose online communications have been so intense that when they finally make it into a hotel room, they are at a loss, and must return to their devices. This not especially funny idea is worked to death, although there is one memorable moment when a pair of laptops gets included when the couple is in the missionary position. As the too-tense lovers, Brown and Jenny Smith make it watchable. In John Doble's Coffee House, Greenwich Village, the weakest play by far, Brown and Smith reunite as hopefuls on a blind date, having connected through the personals section in The New York Review of Books. Rather than tell anything about themselves, they engage in a bit of fantasy role-play that climaxes with them on the cusp of what looks like a crime spree. Here, the actors, including Anderson as an unbelievably insolent waiter, seem simply lumbered by the silly, trivial script.

The LaBute New Theatre Festival is apparently a regular event and the author himself can be counted on to make a contribution. Kandahar, which closes the evening, is pure LaBute: The lights come up on a soldier, seated a table, looking at an unseen interrogator. His first words: "She made me do it." It's a classic LaBute setup and we instantly know that he will narrate -- at first coolly and logically and later in more unhinged fashion -- a series of events that ends in an act of violence. Kandahar wants to make an incisive point about the deadening effects of the war in Afghanistan on those who serve; as the protagonist notes, "They teach you this shit and then they expect you can just switch it on and off." But the sheer predictability of the piece militates against it; we've been here too many times with the author, going all the way back to Bash: Latter Day Plays. Still, Hogan, who shows real light comedy technique in The Comeback Special, builds his character out of dozens of meticulously observed details, giving him a coiled hostility that makes the voyage toward the play's conclusion seem far more dangerous than it otherwise might. Like Anderson, Hogan is a fresh face, but this performance that should lead to more and better roles for him.

This is nothing against the rest of the cast who, under the direction of Milton Zoth and John Pierson, perform as well as circumstances allow. Patrick Huber's scenery and Jonathan Zeleznak's lighting are both pretty basic, as you might expect in a festival situation. Carla Evans provides suitable everyday wear for most of the characters, and the scarlet, bell-bottomed jumpsuit for Elvis is an eye-popper. The sound design, by St. Louis Actors' Studio, mostly provides a series of musical selections for the changeovers between plays.

The LaBute New Theatre Festival isn't worth going out of your way to catch, but if you end up at 59E59, you'll encounter at least two actors and one playwright worth knowing about. --David Barbour


(19 January 2016)

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