By Neil LaBute; Directed by John Pierson and Neil LaBute
Produced by St. Louis Actors' Studio
Off Broadway, Short Plays
Runs through 1.27.19
Davenport Theater, 354 West 45th Street
by Ken Kaissar on 1.16.19
KeiLyn Durrel Jones and Brenda Meaney in Great Negro Works of Art. Photo by Russ Rowland.
BOTTOM LINE: An offering of three new one-act plays by Neil LaBute.
The St. Louis Actors’ Studio returns to New York with the LaBute New Theater Festival. In the past, the festival has consisted of a new one-act by the acclaimed writer Neil LaBute, accompanied by a handful of other shorts by lesser-known writers. It was always exciting to see unknowns sharing a bill with someone much more established. But this year, it seems the master has banished his acolytes; all three offerings are by LaBute himself, and therefore, the enterprise feels a bit less exciting. It’s not uncommon for a famous writer to offer a bill of great short plays that he’s amassed over the years, but these three new plays seem decidedly underdeveloped.
In The Fourth Reich, a man (Eric Dean White) lectures the audience about how Adolf Hitler was underrated as a leader and a visionary. He concedes that Hitler made some mistakes—most notably invading Russia in winter—and when it comes to murdering six million Jews, the man is put out that the topic is raised so often. Under the direction of John Pierson, the piece is clearly trying to be provocative, but to what end? Who is this man and what audience is he talking to? The script does not stipulate. He is simply referred to as “a man sitting in a chair on stage.” Is LaBute making a point about the normalization of reprehensible ideas, as we’ve seen in the current political climate? It’s possible, but there is nothing normal about this play. The character feels untrustworthy from the word go, and so he comes off as another lunatic trying to get our goat. Right now, I think we’re all a little tired of crazy people who frivolously provoke and offer no substance.
Great Negro Works of Art, also directed by Pierson, is more interesting. The play is a blind date between Tom and Jerri—and yes, the characters refer to, and seem delighted by, the parallel to the animated cat and mouse. Tom (KeiLyn Durrel Jones), a black man, meets Jerri (Brenda Meaney), a white woman, at an art exhibit showcasing black artists. Jerri has picked this particular exhibit for their date because she figured Tom would appreciate it—being black and all. In a short time, Jerri feels dismissed and condescended to by Tom, who points out that he takes just as much umbrage with her pandering and microaggressions. Spoiler alert: the date ends in shambles, which is far from disappointing, as the two never find much chemistry between them.
The final offering, Unlikely Japan, is another solo performance in which a young woman (Gia Crovatin) laments her guilt when she learns that a former lover was one of the concert-goers killed at the Las Vegas shooting in 2017. Directed by LaBute himself, Crovatin delivers the piece earnestly and with elegance, giving the program a pleasant finish. The piece shares a common theme, found in other LaBute plays like The Mercy Seat, of self-absorption and apathy in response to great tragedy.
I have previously considered myself a fan of Neil LaBute’s work. I enjoy his play The Shape of Things, and I was invigorated by his award-winning 1997 film In the Company of Men. Perhaps it’s inconvenient that well-known writers draw audiences with high expectations, but I found myself impatient attending three plays that would have been better served by a table read. Even famous writers need to bother with the rigors of fully developing their work.
(LaBute New Theater Festival plays at the Davenport Theater, 354 West 45th Street, through January 27, 2019. The running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7; Wednesdays through Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $47 - $57 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200.)
LaBute New Theater Festival is by Neil LaBute. Directed by John Pierson and Neil LaBute. Set Design by Patrick Huber. Costume Design by Megan Harshaw. Lighting Design by Jonathan Zelezniak. Sound Design by John Pierson. Stage Manager is Seth Ward Pyatt.
The cast is Gia Crovatin, KeiLyn Durrel Jones, Brenda Meaney, and Eric Dean White.