by Sophia Romma
The St. Louis Actors’ Studio presents LaBute Theater Festival featuring an evening of six one-act plays which debuted at the 59E59 Theaters, unveiling New York premier plays by Neil LaBute, Lexi Wolfe, Peter Grandbois and Nancy Bell, G.D. Kimble, JJ Strong and John Doble, directed by Milton Zoth and John Pierson. As the audience nestled into their seats, compact and too close for comfort, the music (mostly country drawl blazing) foreshadowed the blossoming of passion, love, ardent youth (accompanied by the winding entrails of war), human hypocrisy, adultery, death and the fight for the glory of life.
The design team of Patrick Huber (set designer), Jonathan Zelezniak (lightning designer) and Carla Evans (costume designer) proved to perfectly mesh in a most enticing collaborative. Whereas the miniscule set portraying a claustrophobic depth, came to enchanting existence and poured forth with resonance and exquisite meaning, as the lights shifted from a thousand shades of film-noire nude to bordello velvet hues and then churning to shadows, portraying omnipotent silhouettes on the theatre walls like Wayang puppets from Jakarta. The set, interchangeable and sparse, accentuated and fortified the action of the one-act plays by juggling portable beds, chairs, tables and sofas with the greatest finesse. The costumes, contemporary and evocative, reflected and carefully mirrored each aspect of the eclectic characters popping in and out of their respective characters and infiltrating the scenes of the next skit.
In the first one-act, Stand Up For Oneself (by Lexi Wolfe), an oversexed, suave and smooth-talking socialite woos an older gentleman with a cane, who feels like the pariah of the party and an outcast in his own life, because he is stricken with Multiple Sclerosis. He sits in a corner, boozing, until a hip young lady bombards him with eloquent words, and fancy observations. Through a series of sublimely calculated vixen maneuvers she manages to subdue the suitor’s grave aura by seducing him as two opposite hearts collide. While the dialogue is witty, the stage direction is a great bore as the characters remain stagnant until the grand surprise, culminating in the promise of sex and then perhaps a spark igniting a romance. Alicia Smith, who plays the flirtatiously wise-beyond-her-years Lila, is a refreshing face and a delightful actress who steals the skit and takes the limelight by storm.
In Present Tense, by Nancy Bell and Peter Grandbois, a lonely man and woman enter into a cosmic intergalactic form of adultery employing 21st century technology in an effort to escape true touch and human contact. While in bed, they fornicate, literally through the use of their computer screens, performing a mechanical act, while their computer screens physically clash, as the sordid couple emits sounds of feigned ecstasy. Present Tense delves into the heart of the isolated and dejected whirlpool of our computerized text-messaging lives, however, the plot falls short of believable and leaves the audience, computing whether soft porn technological affairs really exist or merely are presented on stage for shock value rather than for pathos and a lascivious conjuring of adult wet dreams.
Two Irishmen Are Digging A Ditch (by G.D. Kimble) tells a joke with absolutely no actual punch line, so the gag is on the playwright. Nevertheless, Mark Ryan Anderson who nails the protagonist, Haggerty, while performing soiled in dirt, stage blood and naught but his own bare skin. Anderson must be commended for the lengthy monologue which he delivers in a dingy Belfast basement. He expounds a singularly captivating, breathtaking performance—what’s more, he’s a dead ringer for Daniel Day Lewis. With his Irish accent chiseled to perfection, one can’t help but inch closer to God and deliverance, as Hagerty writhes in misery, fighting against cowardly injustice, as he calls out the names of the wicked and treacherous who have ratted him out and inexorably done him in. Blaming cousins, neighbors, citizens, the brave Irish lad finds inner strength and begs for his wife and children to be taken care of after he’s snuffed out. Haggerty’s limp and broken body is projected like a specter against the wall—his shadow slowly takes on the life of an imprisoned ape, mercilessly, unapologetically hailed by a parade of bullets.
In The ComeBack Special, by JJ Strong, Jesse and Bonnie (Michael Hogan and Alicia Smith) are two youngsters trapped in Graceland, haunted by the wandering, drugged-up ghost of Elvis Presley (Neil Magnuson). While Mr. Magnuson has adequately captured Elvis’s karate stance and vacant druggie physiognomy, he lacks stage presence and plays Elvis to the same, familiar tune. Ms. Smith is once again a gorgeous nymphet as she struts her stuff, while Mr. Hogan is exhausting and anything but comical. Being stuck with Elvis’s spirit in Graceland is a decent premise, but this one-act is lackluster and lacks those witty kernels humor which would elevate the play to comedic stature.
Coffee House, Greenwich Village, by John Doyle, is dynamically directed and unravels a tale of sadistic, intricately complex characters, à la Bonnie and Clyde. During a blind date they reveal their innermost longings for mad burglary and murder in the first degree. In the role of Pamela, Jenny Smith precociously and diligently exposes her character as a maniacal psychopath, all prim and proper at the date’s outset, then suddenly transforming into a malicious blood-thirsty femme fatale who weaves a web of seduction. Her intent is to lure her beau to murderthe rude, ignoble waiter (Jack), played magnificently by Mark Ryan Anderson.
The final one-act, Kandahar, by Neil LaBute, described in the festival press materials as “devastating” revolves around a broken soldier who returns home from his tour of duty in Afghanistan and kills his cheating girlfriend. She has screwed him over, partnering in shameful “star sixty-nine” sex with his platoon buddy. This skit is so over-the-top predictable,pretentious and lacking in credibility that the other one-acts are masterpieces in comparison. Written in simple, broken vernacular, the soldier (Michael Hogan), who holds the action through dialogue in a possessed manner, gives it his heart and soul. But this dry theatre piece is incapable of resurrecting the audience’s attention as the main character, presented as a typical loony with post-traumatic warrior’s syndrome, is neither psychotic nor exciting to watch. The director fails to aid the directionless dialogue, since the soldier sits at the interrogation table for at least ten minutes without enlisting a significant dramatic arc or progression of personality.
In sum, the LaBute New Theater Festival is at times inspiring like a spring breeze teasing the remnants of a harsh winter. It’s worth soaking your feet in the frothy tide, but don’t expect to get lost in a spirited symphony of superior theater.
LaBute New Theatre Festival. Presented by the St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Through February 7 at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues). www.59e59.org
Photos by Carol Rosegg