Reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest while lying on a couch is Jay, a slacker-looking type in his 30’s. Sitting in the living room nearby is his 60ish mother who enjoys watching Dr. Phil on television and complaining about her ailments. Gabe McKinley’s Homebody is an enthralling black comedy with shades of Grey Gardens. Mother and son bicker, rehash recriminations and share their joy over the possibility of Jay’s novel being published.
In 35 minutes, Mr. McKinley delivers a very well written, plotted and satisfying one-act play. It’s so pleasurable that a full-length version would be most welcome.
Wound up and intense, Michael Hogan wonderfully conveys the heartbreak and dry humor of Jay. As the mother, Donna Weinsting with her melodiously droll and wicked delivery and sunny countenance offers a terrific portrait of maternal passive aggressiveness.
Director John Pierson brings out all of the comedy and darkness with his precise staging. This is the opening of the second half and it is the highpoint of the program.
Next is Cary Pepper’s mildly amusing 15-minute Mark My Worms. It’s Mel Brooks-style silliness as a director, an actor and actress read through the recently discovered script by an esteemed, deceased absurdist playwright. Is it riddled with typographical errors or are these the actual intentions of the author? Bun instead of gun? Hoot instead of shoot? Pissed instead of missed? And so on.
Clea Alsip, Justin Ivan Brown and Eric Dean White broadly and appealingly play the theatrical trio under the appropriately madcap direction of Hogan.
In darkness, we hear the sounds of a man and woman having sex. The lights come up and they’re in a hotel room. They’re scantily clad and converse. It is soon established that not only is she a prostitute, but that she has a printed, descriptive menu of her services and their prices. What follows is a puerile, smutty linguistic exercise that’s out of Oh! Calcutta! or a Saturday Night Live sketch from the 1970’s.
That’s the feeble, stale and painfully unfunny situation of Neil LaBute’s 30-minute What Happens in Vegas. This is its heralded World Premiere. Alsip and Hogan valiantly play the couple. Kel Haney’s direction chiefly consists of coming up with different configurations of them in bed.
A man is reading a book while sitting in a restaurant. Another man enters carrying a brown paper bag, he sits and there are furtive glances. If only it were a gay dating comedy. One of them is a CPA for an organized crime boss and he is hiring the other, a hitman to kill his wife’s lover.
Such is the Martin McDonagh-territory premise of Adam Seidel’s needless and drawn out 30-minute American Outlaws. Director Pierson’s capable staging and the pallid performance of Brown and White’s hyper acting magnify the weakness of the material.
Technically the show’s production is proficient. Patrick Huber’s resourceful set design cleverly suggests the reality of the several locations with basic elements that are rapidly changed by the technical staff. Jonathan Zelezniak’s lighting design is visually pleasing. The cast is suitably attired for their various roles by Carla Evans’ fine costume design.
Since 2013, the St. Louis Actors’ Studio with the support of film director, screenwriter and playwright Neil LaBute has held an annual festival of one-act plays. The program consists of works chosen from new and previously unproduced submissions, and one new one by Mr. LaBute. This is the second year that the festival has been presented at 59E59 Theaters in New York City.
LaBute New Theater Festival (through February 5, 2017)
The St. Louis Actors’ Studio
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission