Biting Wit and Hot-Button Drama Debut at LaBute New Theatre Festival

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Sharp-shooting writers take aim at fascist revisionists, 1 percenters, ubiquitous hipster coffee shops and viral judgment tweets in the first round of the LaBute New Theatre Festival, an overall interesting batch of four one-acts enhanced by crisp, captivating performances.

Renowned playwright Neil LaBute premieres a new work at the festival every summer, in addition to serving on the jury. This is the sixth annual event he is associated with in St. Louis, and now the festival is staged in New York every winter by St. Louis Actors’ Studio, the festival’s originators.

The works chosen for presentation are selected from previously unproduced plays, which must be 45 minutes or less, and hundreds of submissions come from all over the U.S. and sometimes other countries as well.

The first group is performed over the first two weekends in July while the second offering is staged over the last two weeks. LaBute’s one-act, however, is a centerpiece through the entire month.

They are often works-in-progress, as writing and staging are another thing entirely. Once the characters recite the play’s dialogue, we discover what works and what doesn’t. Two of the four could benefit from the workshopping this festival provides.

Some of the works reflect the current divisive political climate, all with bite. At first glance, just the title alone of LaBute’s unsubtle piece, “The Fourth Reich,” indicates he might address the “fine people on all sides” sentiment after Charlottesville’s tiki torch marches. It’s not what I expected, but still, a chilling piece nonetheless.

As “The Fourth Reich” opens, Eric Dean White, so normal-looking, appears solo as a white male, presumably privileged by education and class. He sits in a chair, like it’s an event lecture, and in a conversational way talks about how those who lose wars become villains.

His revisionist history assuaging Hitler is cunning – and insidious — as he casually makes his points in a calm tone. In this blind-sided gut-punch directed by John Pierson, LaBute sounds an urgent fascism alarm in 2018.

In all his new works over the past six years that debuted here, LaBute’s carefully crafted words always pack a punch, but the two best have been disturbing one-character monologues. “The Fourth Reich” is just as frightening as the brilliant “Kanduhar,” with actors impressively conveying the playwright’s incisive points.

The second offering, “Shut Up and Dance” by Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich, is fluidly directed by Wendy Greenwood. It provides some comic relief, as sprightly Colleen Backer and Carly Rosenbaum animatedly appear in a young woman’s daydream while she’s driving to escape social media backlash.

Erin Brewer effectively plays an ex-Radio City Rockette dancer who refused to perform at Trump’s Inauguration, sparking the viral hashtag “shutupanddance as Twitter hate was swift.

When she stops at a motel, she talks to her worried mother (well-cast Margeau Steinau) on the phone, and this sheds light on the cause-and-effect, their personalities revealed.

Clever, yes, but it’s underdone as the play has plot holes to overcome, and the ending needs work. It’s no fault of the execution, for the performers were all engaging.

The second act starts with the social satire “Advantage God,” smartly pairing Eric Dean White and Colleen Backer as prosperous elitists who must flee their gated community because of weaponized social unrest.

While it’s funny, and White’s delivery is a hoot, and Backer is always endearing, we need more basic details. We are dropped in the middle with little acknowledgement of time or place – is it the ‘80s, ‘90s, present-day? Because White sports turned-up collars and the tennis fanatics have a framed photograph of John McEnroe, I’m thinking ‘80s?

Norman Kline’s razor-sharp dialogue emphasizes the creature comforts of country club lifestyles. But still, there are questions about the backstory, and why 1980s? Or why when?

Obviously written well before early July, when inflammatory right-wing commentator Alex Jones proclaimed Democrats were going to start the Second Civil War this recent Independence Day, the play is eerily prescient of the viral #secondcivilwarletters tweets in response to Jones’ statement – Twitter followers wrote last week in the old-timey style of letters used in Ken Burns’ “Civil War” documentary — but reflecting 21st Century consumerism and first-world problems.

Kline’s wit is apparent, and both White and Backer nimbly capture the couple’s desperation and their wealthy white people problems.

Enter Reginald Pierre as the (off-stage) Voice of God – couldn’t have better casting, for his smooth, deep, authoritative tone works perfectly.

However, the play gets wobbly once we travel to the after-life. Editing for length would have strengthened the lampooning, as would filling in pertinent information.

John Pierson assuredly directed both “Advantage God” and the final segment, “Hipster Noir,” which is both a charming paean to and a parody of classic film noir.

The smart, quick-witted work written by James McLindon includes caricatures of the film genre staples – Reginald Pierre is the jaded hard-boiled anti-hero straight out of a Philip Chandler/James M. Cain/Dashiell Hammett novel, with Carly Rosenbaum sultry and snobby as the femme fatale whose stunning looks match Veronica Lake, and Joshua Parrack as a current-day artisanal-loving hipster.

Using well-worn clichés, it’s corny at times, but it’s also a crowd-pleasing whole lot of fun. And the enjoyable cast manages to not break into giggles when the audience good-naturedly groans, but the trio encapsulates the characters well.

Patrick Huber’s set design is functional and efficient, easily blending pieces for use in all four plays.

These plays, presented July 6 – 8, continue July 12 – 15, with the second round of “The Gettier Problem,” “Unabridged” and “The Process” joining “The Fourth Reich” for performances July 20 – 22 and July 26-29. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sunday at The Gaslight Theatre, 358 N. Boyle Ave. For more information, visit www.stlas.org.

The New Theatre Festival also includes a high school playwriting contest. The finalists presented staged readings on Saturday, July 7, at 11 a.m., all directed by Edward Ibur, with stage directions ready by Patrice Foster.

“In Utero” by Ann Zhang and “Our Last Kiss” by Nick Kime, both of John Burroughs School in Ladue, and “Prodigal” by Sydney Cimarolli and “This is Piracy” by Erica O’Brien, both of Webster Groves High School.

Photos by Patrick Huber

 

 

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