By Neil LaBute, James Haigney, and Carter W. Lewis; Directed by John Pierson
Produced by St. Louis Actors' Studio
Off Broadway, Short Plays
Runs through 2.4.18
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street
by Adrienne Urbanski on 1.30.18
Kelly Schaschl, Autumn Dornfeld, and Chauncy Thomas in Percentage America. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: This year's LaBute play festival presents three one acts, some of which are more captivating than others.
While Neil LaBute's name is surely meant to hook in audience members to see this annual festival of short plays, this year the newcomers greatly outshine the master. Making its debut at the festival's home base in St. Louis, Missouri before traveling to New York, this production offers two plays from up-and-coming playwrights, along with a new one from LaBute.
First, the audience gets what they came for: a new work by the popular and prolific playwright. LaBute's Hate Crime is a modern gay version of Double Indemnity. The play opens with a man (Chauncy Thomas) striding in from the bathroom in his hotel room; his chilling grin hints at the dark mission inside his head. Soon his befuddled counterpart (Spencer Sickmann) enters, and we learn that the two are planning to murder the second man's fiancee on their wedding night, staging the whole thing as a hate crime. While the play features excellent acting and some compelling dialogue, it fails to reach the level of quality seen in LaBute's other works.
James Haigney's Winter Break focuses on Joann (Kelly Schaschl), a typical girl (white, Episcopalian) from middle America who has taken a sudden passionate interest in the Islamic faith. Renaming herself Aisha, she has decided to spend her winter break in Turkey among fellow Muslims, something her mother (Autumn Dornfeld) is wary about. At first the conflict seems straightforward: her mother's objections are based on ignorance and Islamophobia, and Joann/Aisha's interest in becoming Muslim is simply about her finding herself spiritually. However, Joann's brother Bailey (Spencer Sickmann), having seen his sister's social media accounts, has reason to believe she may be communicating with Islamic extremists. Sickmann shows off his range here, switching from the submissive and befuddled man in LaBute's play to a stronger, angrier character who is adamant that his view is correct. Haigney doesn't play to political correctness, not does he take any one character's side. He wisely leaves Winter Break's ending open to interpretation, giving some fresh juice to a well-trodden topic.
After a brief intermission, the audience is treated to the standout of this trio. Carter W. Lewis's Percentage America opens with two people, Andrew (Chauncy Thomas) and Arial (Autumn Dornfeld), on a date. As they each remove the masks of their online profiles and start to reveal who they really are, they realize they are getting turned on by this prospect of radical honesty. So they decide to try something "a little kinky"—investigate a breaking news story in an effort to discover the objective truth. As the misinformation grows—the talented Kelly Schaschl serves as the daily news cycle, hilariously giving out reports as various anchors—Andrew and Arial get increasingly disturbed by how far the truth is from the various versions of the story. Percentage America is a timely work, echoing the sad state of affairs of "fake news" and biased, untrustworthy reporting. All three actors maximize the power and humor of Lewis's script, which shows the elusiveness of truth in an era of misinformation.
(LaBute New Theater Festival plays at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, through February 4, 2018. The running time is 1 hour 40 minutes. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2:30 and 7:30; and Sundays at 2:30. Tickets are $35 and are available at 59e59.org or by calling 646.892.7922.)
The plays in the LaBute New Theater Festival are by Neil LaBute, James Haigney, and Carter W. Lewis. Directed by John Pierson. Set Design by Patrick Huber. Lighting Design by Jonathan Zelezniak. Sound Design by John Pierson. Stage Manager is Andrea Lessard.
The cast is Kelly Shaschl, Autumn Dornfeld, Chauncy Thomas, and Spencer Sickmann.