LaBute New Theater Festival

Written by Neil LaBute, Lexi Wolfe, Peter Grandbois and Nancy Bell, G.D. Kimble, JJ Strong, and John Doble; Directed by Milton Zoth and John Pierson
Produced by St. Louis Actors' Studio

Off Broadway, New Work Festival 
Runs through 2.7.16
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street


by Michael Hartung on 1.16.16

Michael Hogan in Kandahar. Photo by John Lamb.


BOTTOM LINE: An exciting evening of new short plays that range from successfully thought-provoking to works in progress that are ready for the next step.

An evening of new work that has Neil LaBute’s name boldly attached to the title holds exciting potential. LaBute, a writer well versed in theatre, film and television and known for his bold contemporary work and biting dialogue, has worked with the Actors Studio of St. Louis for the past three seasons to produce the LaBute New Theater Festival. 59E59’s mounting of the festival marks its New York debut. In 59E59‘s intimate Theater C, six short plays make their New York premiers, directed by Milton Zoth and John Pierson.

Stand Up For Oneself by Lexi Wolfe and performed by Alicia Smith and Mark Ryan Anderson takes a moment to find its momentum. At a loud house party, Lucas, on the couch with a cane beside him, is clearly not enjoying himself while Lila is drawn to his mysteriously moody demeanor. Through cute guessing games and revealing personal information, they manage to make a connection that looks as though it will last at least until morning. Though British dialects are clumsily handled, Smith and Ryan create engaging chemistry with Wolfe’s endearing retelling of two misfits finding comfort in one another.

Peter Granbois and Nancy Bell’s Present Tense creatively tackles society’s current relationship with technology. Though this topic could seem tired and overdone, Granbois and Bell’s intriguing short play keeps the audience wanting more with potent dialogue and purposeful staging. Jenny Smith and Justin Ivan Brown delicately bring to life this affair kept alive through internet and phone connection.

Two Irishmen Are Digging A Ditch by G.D. Kimble starts with the striking image of a bruised and bleeding nude male on the floor. From there the one-person scene (commanded by a fiercely committed Mark Ryan Anderson) can’t help but keep the audience's full attention with naked man and subject matter alone (he is in captivity awaiting an unfortunately predictable fate). Though the scene teeters on one note, Kimble undoubtedly keeps a lively pace. The second scene features a man (Justin Ivan Brown) literally digging a ditch while a larger and lazier man (Neil Magnuson) simply watches and converses with a Guinness in hand. Connecting the two scenes set in an Irish town takes some time. Though Kimble leaves plenty of room for interpretation, the piece is definitely thought-provoking. Similar to Stand Up For Oneself, I could have done without the imperfect accents.

In JJ Strong’s The Comeback Special, a couple on a cross country road trip (Alicia Smith and Michael Hogan) find themselves in Graceland; they have somehow dodged security and ended up in Elvis Presley’s bedroom. If their struggling road trip/relationship wasn’t conflict enough, it turns out Elvis (Neil Magnuson) is alive (or rather, he is stuck in some sort of vaguely described purgatory, unable to properly die) and it is their mission to help him successfully pass on to the next world. Confused? Me too. Though the campy short elicited some laughter, mine felt more forced than genuinely earned.

Coffee House, Greenwich Village by John Doble caught me off guard. What starts as a cliché first date takes a rather shocking turn towards psychological thriller. Jenny Smith and Justin Ivan Brown are two hopeful daters from the personal ads in the newspaper, with Mark Ryan Anderson portraying an overly annoying waiter (awkward and clumsy writing does not help Anderson here). The two daters are not only off-the-wall characters, but quickly become psychotic, playing mind games that are impossible for them or the audience to follow. The concept is an interesting idea, but unfortunately the fully realized production doesn't feel complete.

The crown jewel of the night, Neil LaBute’s Kandahar, ends the evening. Michael Hogan is a soldier returned home after his tour of duty. He's being questioned for what is revealed to be a chilling crime. His narrative is taken straight out to the audience, almost as though we are the ones questioning him. This interesting and unique position of power forces the audience to really investigate what is going on inside his head. LaBute’s new play is relevant (unfortunately so). It questions the character and ethical practices of soldiers, military authority, and how this system functions as a whole. Big questions, people. Though on the surface it is bare-bones simple, Kandahar is deeply and fascinatingly complicated.

(LaBute New Theater Festival plays at 59E59 Theater C, 59 East 59th Street, through February 7, 2016. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30; Fridays at 8:30; Saturdays at 2:30 and 8:30; and Sundays at 3:30 and 7:30. Tickets are $30 and are available at or by calling 212-279-4200.)


LaBute New Theater Festival features plays by Neil LaBute, Lexi Wolfe, Peter Grandbois and Nancy Bell, G.D. Kimble, JJ Strong, and John Doble. It is directed by Milton Zoth and John Pierson. Set design is by Patrick Huber. Lighting design and technical direction is by Jonathan Zelezniak. Costume design and prop design is by Carla Evans. Sound design is by St. Louis Actors' Studio. Scenic design is by Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center. Production stage manager is Seth Ward Pyatt. 

The cast includes Michael Hogan, Alicia Smith, Neil Magnuson, Mark Ryan Anderson, Jenny Smith, and Justin Ivan Brown.