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LaBute New Theater Festival 2017

LaBute New Theater Festival 2017
Michael Hogan and Clea Alsip in Neil LaBute's What Happens in Vegas (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Since summer 2013, the St. Louis Actors' Studio has staged an annual LaBute New Theater Festival of one-act plays in the same style as Throughline Artists's Summer Shorts festival in New York (a festival in which Neil LaBute has also regularly presented new works). Last year marked the first time that the festival made a winter pilgrimage to New York, presenting a modified version of the previous summer's lineup. This year, the LaBute New Theater Festival returns to 59E59 with three one-acts presented last summer in St. Louis and one world premiere by the Festival's namesake himself.

The evening starts off with a bang—a literal one, if we're being crude—in LaBute's What Happens in Vegas. In a hotel room, we find a man (Michael Hogan) and woman (Clea Alsip) passionately entwined — just one of the many services she offers on her expansive a la carte menu, for those who don't want to purchase an all-inclusive package for the night. In a transaction where business is pleasure, the line between fun and formality proves fuzzy, making what's supposed to be an encounter defined by ardor into something clinical and delightfully awkward.

The strongest of the four pieces in the Festival, What Happens in Vegas is cleverly written and well realized by Kel Haney. Alsip and Hogan excel with impeccable timing and subtly expressive body language. The play also offers a nice example of restraint in dealing with sexual content. LaBute often finds ways to imply what might be made explicit, leaving the moments that remain more surprising. It's easy to imagine another director using nudity or more graphic depictions of sex to discomfit the audience, but Haney and the actors keep the focus on the characters, effectively maximizing the discomfort of the exchange itself.

The characters of Adam Seidel's American Outlaws don't feel as fully-realized, even though we actually know more about their lives: the play involves a love triangle wherein the assassin Martin (Justin Ivan Brown) and accountant/occasional mob collaborator Mitch (Eric Dean White) are both involved with Mitch's wife. Martin hides his scheming under a devil-may-care attitude while Mitch stumbles haplessly along, never seeming to grasp what's going on.

There's high-stakes drama here, and yet the piece isn't quite engrossing. Neither Martin nor Mitch feel worth rooting for, nor is there a compelling anti-hero between them. John Pierson's direction emphasizes weighty silences and dramatic pauses that, along with a lengthy scene-change, make the overall pacing feel sluggish.

Pierson strikes a better balance in Gabe McKinley's Homebody, which features Hogan as Jay, a struggling writer living with his mother (Donna Weinsting). The two spend most of the time lobbing venomous barbs at one another, but especially as Jay's career prospects improve, it becomes clear that they're quite devoted to each other. How they support one another can be, at turns, funny, endearing, or unnerving.

Hogan and Weinsting are well-matched in depicting the play's sparring pair, warts and all. And while Homebody ultimately moves towards an ending that doesn't feel wholly earned or true to the characters, it intrigues as the most dramatically ambitious one-act of the night.

Cary Pepper's Mark My Worms, which Hogan directs, serves as a sort of dessert for the evening: the shortest of the bunch, low on deep substance, but sugary in welcome contrast to what preceded it. The play, perhaps better described as a sketch, features Brown, White, and Alsip as a director and performers presenting a newly discovered work by the absurdist playwright LaSalle Montclare. The author's estate assiduously seeks to protect his legacy by requiring the work to be performed exactly as written, but this becomes a challenge due to Montclare's poor typing skills.

Silly in its absurdism, the piece might be viewed in the lineage of David Ives' All in the Timing. Wordplay fuels most of the humor, but the play gets some extra mileage from skewering overly academic interpretations of art and works that only make sense to someone who has spent a lifetime studying the artist. The premise is simple, the cast energetically hit the jokes fast, and it's over just as the idea starts running out of steam.

The four one-acts form a collection that is entertaining on balance but uneven. The inclusion of only four works allows us to really linger in each one, but the pieces themselves don't necessarily support that sustained attention. While the brisk pacing of What Happens in Vegas is exemplary, the others can drag, and lengthy transitions between scenes and sets slow things down as well.

It's also worth noting that this year's Festival doesn't offer much in the way of diversity of voices. All four of the one-acts are written by white men, and the majority center on male characters. I mention this not to imply malicious intent or to fault any of the participating artists, but because it feels like a missed opportunity. It gives the Festival a sort of retro quality, one that feels out of touch with current realities. I'd guess that's probably not what a Festival with "New Theater" in the name is going for.

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LaBute New Theater Festival 2017
By Neil LaBute
Directed by Kel Haney
with Clea Alsip (Her) and Michael Hogan (Him)

By Adam Seidel
Directed by John Pierson
with Justin Ivan Brown (Martin) and Eric Dean White (Mitch)

By Gabe McKinley
Directed by John Pierson
with Michael Hogan (Jay) and Donna Weinsting (Mother)

By Cary Pepper
Directed by Michael Hogan
with Clea Alsip (Gloria), Justin Ivan Brown (John), and Eric Dean White (Mason)

Set Design: Patrick Huber
Lighting Design, TD: Jonathan Zelezniak
Costume/Prop Design: Carla Evans
Scenic Design: Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center
Sound Design: St. Louis Actors' Studio
Production Stage Manager: Seth Ward Pyatt
Assistant Stage Manager: Andrea Lessard
Production Assistant: Amy Paige
Presented by St. Louis Actors' Studio
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with one intermission
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street (between Park and Madison Aves.)
Tickets: $35;, 212-279-4200
From 1/13/2017; opened 1/18/2017; closing 2/5/2017
Performance times: Tuesday–Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday at 8:30 pm, Saturday at 2:30 and 8:30 pm, and Sunday at 3:30 and 7:30 pm.
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 1/14/2017 performance

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