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LaBute New Theater Festival 2019

An exhilarating premiere of three short plays on contemporary themes by the noted cultural provocateur that all contain his characteristic dark humor.

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Brenda Meaney and KeiLyn Durrel Jones in a scene from Neil LaBute’s “Great Negro Works of Art” (Photo credit: Russ Rowland)

Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

An exhilarating trio of short plays by that noted cultural provocateur Neil LaBute make their New York City premieres in this edition of the LaBute New Theatre Festival 2019.  Since 2013, the St. Louis Actors’ Studio with the support of Mr. LaBute who is an acclaimed film director, screenwriter and playwright has held an annual festival of one-act plays. This incarnation is unique as it is comprised solely of works of his which is probably why it is so potent.

Each is a well-crafted topical theatrical snapshot smoothly dramatizing contemporary United States themes. LaBute’s distinctive dark humor and sharp insights into the human condition are realized by his bitingly precise dialogue. Most crucially he has created enthralling showcases for actors to dazzle in.

“I’m sure you can guess who the artist is. Can’t you? Yes. Of course, you can” grandly states a white middle aged-man who is holding up a small framed watercolor street scene that was painted by Adolf Hitler. “I own it because I love it and that is all that matters. Nothing else. I don’t have to justify it and you don’t have to like it, but I have no problem — none at all –dividing it from the legacy of the man who made it…”

Eric Dean White in a scene from Neil LaBute’s “The Fourth Reich” (Photo credit: Russ Rowland)

In “The Fourth Reich” the ingratiatingly mild-mannered Eric Dean White hypnotically delivers a chilling 25-minute monologue by a far-right denizen of the heartland. “…the Jew thing, definitely goes in the ‘cons’ column, if we’re doing that, pros and cons. BUT that is not the beginning and end of who Hitler was and all the legacy he left behind.”

Mr. White’s mellow vocal delivery and winning low-key presence endow his ominous characterization with quiet force. He is also very funny. Director John Pierson’s organic staging has him perfectly still, sitting and rising.

“I think you’re great, you are, and you look a lot like your profile picture, which is rare… People are just WAY too sensitive today. About… you know…everything. Feminist stuff and race stuff… I’m glad that you’re not that way…I’m glad you’re just ‘you.’

“Great Negro Works of Art” is also the name of the exhibit that the black Tom and the white Jerri are viewing as their first in-person encounter after connecting from a dating app. In 30 minutes, LaBute hilariously charts the downhill spiral of a first date in this spoof of political correctness that has a wicked riff on the racist significance of lawn jockeys. There is also the poignant dimension of one person believing that the date is going well.

Brenda Meaney and KeiLyn Durrel Jones in a scene from Neil LaBute’s “Great Negro Works of Art” (Photo credit: Russ Rowland)

KeiLyn Durrel Jones’ breezy charm captures all of Tom’s coolness, intelligence and volatility. The captivating Brenda Meaney offers a terrific comic portrait of a present day airhead as she authoritatively praises Native Son and The Color Purple while naming their authors incorrectly. Richard Wright gets mixed up with James Baldwin and Alice Walker with Toni Morrison and Flannery O’Connor is thought to be a man.  Mr. Jones and Ms. Meany’s charged chemistry really puts the play over with Mr. Pierson’s guidance who has them staring out at the audience to look at the artworks among other resourceful moves. That their names are those of cartoon characters is mentioned.

In case you’re judging me now, about what I say or how I’m saying it…I loved him in a certain way, and he loved me too and that’s absolutely and one hundred perfect true… but…most of the time I was seeing him, there was someone else in my life as well…For a year or so, he had no idea about this other boy…or man, or whatever you’d call him.

After ten years without contact, a young woman dramatically finds out that her first ex-boyfriend from high school has died in the confessional monologue, “Unlikely Japan.” The blonde and wholesome Gia Crovatin is spellbinding for 25 minutes as she rivetingly recalls a cascade of memories culminating in her immature betrayal and its profound aftermath.

Gia Crovatin in a scene from Neil LaBute’s “Unlikely Japan” (Photo credit: Russ Rowland)

LaBute wonderfully imparts a haze of golden details as we learn about the sad fate of the sensitive artist, and there’s the affective dynamic of looking back at one’s past misdeeds with reflective self-justification. “…But it’s the kind of thing you do at an age like that, that’s how you take care of things. Badly. Stupidly. Fuck it up and walk away like it never even happened.” Labute’s staging is effectively straightforward.

Scenic designer Patrick Huber’s neat minimalistic efforts allow for brisk transitions between the three plays with the assistance of a crew member. The spacious black-accented stage contains a few black modular sofas that get rearranged and some choice integral props that are all displayed for great effect. Most aesthetic is a sectional center stage black brick wall with an authentic gray descriptive sign for “Great Negro Works of Art.”

The unobtrusive lighting design by Jonathan Zelezniak achieves straightforward brilliance. Pierson’s sound design chiefly renders the pop tunes used for the scene changes to bracing effect. Each character is visualized by costume designer Megan Harshaw’s perfect selection of everyday wear.

Most programs of one-act plays have a variable quality, but the LaBute New Theatre Festival 2019’s three knockouts make for a thrilling event.

LaBute New Theatre Festival 2019 (through January 27, 2019)

St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Davenport Theatre, 354 West 45th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.stlas.org

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (696 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for Theaterscene.net.

2 Comments on LaBute New Theater Festival 2019

  1. Thank you, Darryl, for your kind words and your unending commitment to theater in forms both large and small. You are a champion and we need you–keep the faith and keep up the good work!

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