By Tulis McCall
In this trio of plays, nobody pretty much likes anybody. That’s because everyone is pretty much unlikable. This, in and of itself is not a crime – how many of us delight in villains and their ways? Seriously – what’s good about a softhearted hero with sparkly blue eyes? Give me a little treachery.
In this set of plays by Neil LaBute, however, we never get as far as treachery. Each play is built around a nest of good intention, but that is not enough to pave the road to a riveting piece of theatre.
In THE FOURTH REICH, directed by John Pierson. We meet Karl (Eric Dean White) (Note the spelling) who is a man of modest presentation and grand thoughts. The grandest of these is that Hitler may not have been as bad as we think. Because he lost the war, however, we are allowed to say whatever we want about him. This is a fascinating premise and worthy of investigation – even though it got the audience riled as Mr. Labute intended. The text, however, does not go deep, it goes wide. Soon Karl is more or less entertaining himself, flashing deliberately cold smiles, indicating what was coming from a mile out and, may I say, looking at NO ONE. Well, perhaps Mr. White was looking at someone about halfway back in the audience. But I was in the second row, and after the first moments White devoted his gaze over my head to the back of the audience. This was, no doubt, where Mr. Pierson was sitting during rehearsal. But this “looked” like a lecture so why was the audience not being engaged? The result – not only was the text going nowhere, but the intended recipient of the lecture was unknown. Ergo the purpose of the talk was also unknown. Disappointing.
The second piece GREAT NEGRO WORKS OF ART, also directed by John Pierson, presents us with a title that seems to be intended as provocative. Were this the 1970’s that might be the case. The press release refers to this play as a scene between an “under-celebrated artist and his gallery manager as they debate race, culture and what is/what is not ‘ART’ today.” By the time this play hit the boards here it was transformed into a first date between Tom (KeiLyn Durrel Jones) and Jerri (Brenda Meaney) via an online dating service. Ah yes, note the names again. Think cartoon. Anyway, this enormous change may account for the uneven quality of what was – again – a good idea to start with. White woman and Black man smash egos and assumptions into a car wreck of their own making. She is obtuse and he is overly understanding which belies his rage. Not a new idea but it could have been given a new suit of clothes. It wasn’t.
UNLIKELY JAPAN was directed by the author, and I am sorry to say there was no improvement in the evening. Katie (Gia Crovatin) is talking to SOMEONE – this time we are pretty certain it is not us because she is wearing slippers and seems to be hearing responses from this invisible someone (again sitting near the back of the house). It might be a romantic someone because Katie want to unburden her sorry soul and talk about her past romances, and how one turn in the road might have brought her and her ex-boyfriend, who she just saw listed as a victim in one of our many shootings, to different outcomes. Seeing a photo of her ex as a shooting victim has brought her up short – another great premise. But, again, the monologue wanders in and out of some very deep “what if’s” and it does not stay long. In the end the story lacks gravitas and becomes a ho-hum.
All in all a great set of intentions that fail to lift up off the page and hit us where we live.
THE FOURTH REICH, directed by John Pierson, WITH Eric Dean White
GREAT NEGRO WORKS OF ART, directed by John Pierson
WITH KeiLyn Durrel Jones and Brenda Meaney
UNLIKELY JAPAN directed by Neil LaBute, WITH Gia Crovatin
Creative team includes: Patrick Huber (Set Design), Megan Harshaw (Costume Design), Jonathan Zelezniak (Technical Director and Light Design), Seth Ward Pyatt (Production Stage Manager), Josephine Roth (Assistant Stage Manager) and Amy J Paige (Production Assistant).
St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s (William Roth, Artistic Director) The LaBute New Theater Festival returns to New York this year at the Davenport Theatre (354 West 45th Street, NYC). The LaBute New Theater Festival is comprised of three premier one-acts by Tony Award nominated playwright Neil LaBute and will begin performances on January 10, and celebrate its press opening on January 14 and running through January 27. Tickets are $47-$57 and can be purchased by visiting Telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200.