LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL
Review by Kathleen Campion
The evening kicks off in low light shrouding a bed where two young bodies are thrusting enthusiastically, and the room rings with her practiced, orgasmic moans. There is a pause, as he slips off her and into his shorts and she smoothes down her chemise. The lights come up, and we are well and truly into Neil LaBute’s What Happens in Vegas, the first of four one-acts in a short run at 59E59.
The great thing about an evening of one-acts is the compare-and-contrast opportunity. So, while this “card” reads “LaBute New Theater Festival,” and the three plays that follow Vegas were nurtured and polished at past LaBute festivals, his opener proves a hard act to follow.
In What Happens in Vegas, LaBute gives us a darkly funny pas de duex that reduces intimacy to a transactional, it’s-only-business menu. The audience laughs more in recognition of the transaction, than in mirth. We are not titillated but intrigued. “She”(Clea Alsip) cooly calculates the costs of a neck bite, of horseplay, of fingerblasting — alternately cajoling and ambushing — but always controlling “Him” (Michael Hogan).
Three of the four dramas could be seen as studies in masculinity. Vegas is followed by Adam Seidel’s American Outlaws, which sets the cuckolded husband (Eric Dean White) against the potent lover (Justin Ivan Brown). So, at root (sorry), we have two men struggling to figure out who they are and what they want, relative to the woman whom they both want, but from whom they want different things. All the “Animal Planet” posturing of dominant threat and submissive underbelly-showing goes on for a long time.
Homebody by Gabe McKinley is up next. There is sustained tension between a mother and son trapped together by dependency; he (Michael Hogan) is a failed writer, she (Donna Weinsting) an aging scold; and they do work your last nerve. It’s one of those dramas where you initially dislike each of the characters sufficiently that you hope one will kill the other, and soon. Weinsting has the better hand in this too-long stretch on a single notion. She delivers a textured Mother that shuffles thru wheedling desperation, meanness that only a mother can deliver, and, finally, her own brand of madness that leads to her Aha moment. I would have poisoned the son, myself, if she hadn’t. As with Outlaws, it takes too long to get there.
The fourth play, Cary Pepper‘s Mark My Worms, is not about masculinity. It is about hoisting the pretensions of absurd theatrical situations. Actors Mason (Eric Dean White) and Gloria (Clea Alsip) land the leads in a newly discovered and never-produced play by a deceased, world-class absurdist. The director John (Justin Ivan Brown) delivers the unwelcome news that the writer’s estate will not allow a single word change, even though the script is rife with typos. (bun for gun, kissed for missed and so on.) Mark My Worms is likely more fun for people in the theater, but, even for a civilian audience, it has its moments. It’s hardly Beckett or Albee — this is spoof, but fun.
The venue, 59E59, sort of holds you in the hollow of its hand. Studio C is so cosy, you often feel you are part of the crew, and it is a strangely welcoming embrace. I’m still dazzled by the sheer grit it takes to do live theater right there, up so close, in front of god and everybody!
In Homebody when the Mother (Donna Weinsting) stares at me (but not at me) as she watches Oprah, I can see her irises. She is commanding in that chair, and, more to the point, she is alone in the room with her son. She does that magic that actors do — not ignoring you or pretending you’re not there, so much as being alone with the other actor.
That is both the pith of these plays and the problem. There is the risk, really just a suspicion, that we are watching promising scene studies — works in development — rather than realized plays. If pressed I guess I could drum up a definitive difference. But I’m struggling with it. On the one hand What Happens In Vegas, for all its brevity, feels fully formed and completely realized, while American Outlaws begs a good deal of indulgence.
Still, if the question is, on the odd Thursday night, Should I go out for a glass at the very nice bar and the offering of four very different plays in the company of people — on stage and off — who just love live, cosy theater?, the answer is yes.
What Happens in Vegas – By Neil LaBute; directed by Kel Haney.
American Outlaws – By Adam Seidel; directed by John Pierson.
Homebody – By Gabe McKinley; directed by John Pierson.
Mark My Worms – By Cary Pepper;directed by Michael Hogan.
WITH: Clea Alsip (Her in What Happens in Vegas, Gloria in Mark My Worms), Justin Ivan Brown (Martin in American Outlaws, John in Mark My Worms), Michael Hogan (Him in What Happens in Vegas, Jay in Homebody), Donna Weinsting (Mother in Homebody), Eric Dean White (Mitch in American Outlaws, Mason in Mark My Worms)
Designed by Patrick Huber, lighting by Johathan Zelezniak, costume and props by Carla Evans, scenic design by Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center, sound design by St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Presented by the St. Louis Actors’ Studio, artistic director William Roth. At 59E59, 59 East 59th Street, Manhattan; tickets at Ticket Central at 212 279 4200. Through February 5. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission.