By Samuel L. Leiter
Since 2016, the St. Louis Actors’ Studio has been presenting an annual program of one-acts locally under the rubric LaBute New Theater Festival, which is also seen each summer at St. Louis’s Gaslight Theater. LaBute, of course, is Neil LaBute, prolific author, director, and so on. Previous programs have included as many as six short plays chosen from a national competition, with one from LaBute himself. This year’s incarnation, at the Davenport Theatre, is all-LaBute, with the playwright directing one of them.
Given the hit or miss quality of previous LaBute one-acts, which, at their best, offer keenly observed characters and sharply crafted dialogue built around topically provocative subjects, it’s a pleasure to report that each of his new plays is absorbingly written and perfectly acted. Staged with utter simplicity against a neutral, black-brick wall (designed by Patrick Huber), with a few unobtrusive furnishings, and provided with subtly nuanced lighting by Jonathan Zelezniak, the program consists of the two-character “Great Negro Works of Art” sandwiched between two monologues, “The Fourth Reich,” for a man, and “Unlikely Japan,” for a woman.
In “The Fourth Reich” we meet Karl (Eric Dean White, memorably effective), a pleasant, easygoing guy who casually chats to us about why maybe Adolf Hitler really wasn’t such a monster. He smiles softly at his reasonableness, like a school teacher expressing a controversial opinion in a friendly manner designed to short-circuit any rebuttal.
He admits that, of course, the Fuhrer had his faults and made some “mistakes,” but, hey, if you read what he wrote, you’ll see he actually had some good ideas. Showing a small landscape painting Hitler made, he has no trouble taking pride in its ownership. At the end, as Karl’s lips curl into a gentle smirk, the lighting perfectly captures his sinister heart.
As expertly directed by John Pierson (also responsible for the excellent sound design), the piece is more effective at expressing Karl’s invidious rhetoric than any ranting might accomplish. Brilliantly satiric as it is, the play will make you shake your head and want to argue back. The lack of a counterargument deprives “The Fourth Reich” of its real punch, unless you can pretend to be a fascist present to hear Karl’s (not Carl, you may notice) perspective.
The title of “Great Negro Works of Art” stands for an art exhibit at which two characters—a white woman, Jerri (Deborah Meaney) and a light-skinned black man, Tom (Keilyn Durrel Jones)—meet after connecting on a dating app. It’s a loaded phrase related to the many issues of identity politics running through this intriguing play.
Both Tom and Jerri (the cartoon series about the similarly named cat and mouse is noted) are attracted to one another. He’s better educated but she, despite many gaffes, is intelligent and sensitive enough for their conversation to snap, crackle, and pop as they test each other out. Each is faultlessly dressed by Megan Harshaw to display their relative hipness. Jerri, her permed, reddish hair a cascade of curls, wears a print dress and stylish ankle boots, Tom, his head shaved, is in a trim, dark suit showing a T-shirt with a kneeling Colin Kaepernick.
No matter how each tries to avoid saying anything offensive, their dynamics create untenable differences with regard to issues of race and gender that, struggle as they may, are impossible to paper over. The name of the exhibit—Jerri asks which is better, Great Negro Works of Art or Great Works of Negro Art?—inspires a sequence itself worth the price of admission.
This 30-minute piece will surely have a long life in acting classes but it’s unlikely to get as potent a pair of performances as those of Meaney and Jones. Jones is outstanding and the statuesque Meaney is exceptional. With Pierson again directing, each actor expresses dozens of transitions as they seek to communicate within the bounds of politically correct propriety. The more they wiggle around their differences of opinion or say something that somehow strikes the wrong note, the more fraught does the situation become.
“Unlikely Japan,” the final play, directed by LaBute himself, gets a terrific solo performance by the lovely Gia Crovatin, who keeps us glued to its tale of a woman’s guilt at having spurned the attentions of a man, the high school beau in whom she’d lost interest. Following his tragic fate in a mass shooting of recent occurrence, she obsesses over whether it might not have happened had she accepted his offer of a trip to Japan.
As with “The Fourth Reich,” it’s never established as to whom she’s talking, and we get no sense of anyone responding to her. The situation is less thematically topical than in the other plays, regardless of the shooting’s notoriety. The play is about the universal regret for choices made, consequences suffered, and the remorse engendered, the “if only I’d done this instead of that” syndrome. Crovatin does wonders with the material but, truth be told, it’s the lightest of the program’s plays.
The LaBute New Theater Festival has no intermission, running an hour and a half of uninterrupted pleasure.
LaBute New Theater Festival. Through January 27 at the Davenport Theater (354 West 45th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues). 90 minutes, no intermision. www.stlas.org
Photos: Russ Rowland