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LaBute New Theater Festival - Three One-Act Plays by Neil LaBute
It's that correct, or should it be..."GREAT WORKS OF NEGRO ART?" I don't even feel comfortable using that word any more as a woman...without color...because it goes in and out of fashion so much, but you can...I'm sure you can get away with it, so which is it? NEGRO or ARTS first? You tell me. — Jerri
Keilyn Durrell John and Brenda Meaney in Great Negro Works Of Art
Recurring themes of misanthropy and misogyny have played a major role in playwright Neil LaBute's best and most lauded plays (Tony-nominated Reasons to be Pretty The Shape of Things Fat Pig) as well in his plots for films (In the Company of Men) and for TV and short fiction. The point is that he never ceases to challenge, startle, and bring an unsparing frankness along with humor to the darker aspects of the male-female relationship.

Despite his sudden break this past year with his long-time New York-based MCC Theatre Company as playwright-in-residence for reasons that are still unclear, his collaboration with St. Louis Actors' Studio continues. His three newest one-act plays are now playing in New York as a co-production between the St. Louis group and the Davenport Theater.

All three plays are performed on the same bare bones unit set designed by Patrick Huber. As you might expect, all three are provocative and deal with hot topics. You will, however, be inclined to laugh at his mordant sense of humor.They are all calculated to sting, surprise and stir up the kind of feelings you might otherwise not care to acknowledge.

Are all three plays equal in excellence? No. But the centerpiece GREAT NEGRO WORKS OF ART is excellent. It's about a first date between a white woman and a black man that goes sour for all the wrong reasons — or maybe the right reasons. Jerri (Benda Meaney) and Tom (Keilyn Durrell Jones) have found each other on an internet dating service. Yes, their names do prompt a little initial joking by Tom with regard to the similarity of the famous cartoon characters. The place for their first date is a museum exhibit entitled GREAT NEGRO WORKS OF ART chosen with nothing but the best of intentions on her part by Jerri.

It should be noted that Jerri is a looker and Tom is a handsome fellow. She makes it clear she likes black men and has no qualms about her intentions to "have a good time, dinner and sex" Jerri is a little nervous and arrives eagerly holding a bouquet. The meeting starts off haltingly but soon they are exchanging chitchat. Jerri is not quite prepared for the steady stream of condescension that surfaces from the intellectually superior but still determined to be friendly Tom. Their responses to each other grow funnier and even a little sadder as Jerri is suddenly on the defensive. What becomes clearer by the minute is how our perspective is manipulated and our empathy is shifted from one to the other. Under the direction of John Pierson, the play reveals an insightful portrait of two basically nice people in search of romance and that illusive link that is needed to insure a good time, dinner and sex.

The opening play, The Fourth Reich is under the playwright's direction. It's a chiller that may make your skin crawl as you listen to a talk from a genial gentleman Karl (Eric Dean White) who lectures on his favorite subject Adolf Hitler. He is also captivated by a landscape watercolor by Hitler. The thing that makes Karl's lecture compelling is the occasional, conspicuously contrived smile that periodically appears to invariably underline a point.

Without specific acknowledgement, Karl is a neo-Nazi with an agenda. White affects a style of presentation that is intended to keep us off guard. He is terrific and terrifically terrifying. Karl says right off the bat "Can you think of too many other people who have suffered more bad shit about them than this guy?" As a disciple, he is well prepared to offer excuses for Hitler's actions. The Fourth Reich reverberates with unflinching, jaw-dropping historical revisionism that is making a comeback. LaBute nails it squarely.

Unlikely Japan is about Katie (Gia Crovatin), a young woman looking back on an affair she had in high school with a guy who she has just discovered while watching TV was one of the many victims in the Las Vegas mass shooting. She also speculates what his fate might have been had she not broken up with him. It's the what-if kind of story that is given some heft by the compelling way that Crovatin takes us back to the teen romance with a guy with whom she had no great feeling. Katie also creates a fantasy world of their life together to help relieve the guilt she feels about having dumped him on her way to, you guessed it, Japan.

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LaBute New Theater Festival - Three One-Act Plays by Neil LaBute Directed by LaBute and John Pierson
Cast: Eric Dean White (Karl - The Fourth Reich), Brenda Meaney (Jerri - Great Negro Works of Art), Keilyn Durrel Jones (Tom - Great Negro Works of Art), Gia Crovatin (Katie - Unlikely Japan)
Costume Design: Megan Harshaw
Set Design: Patrick Huber
Light Design: Jonathan Zelezniak
Sound Design: John Pierson
Production Stage Manager: Seth Ward Pyatt
Running Time: 90 minutes no intermission
Davenport Theater, 354 W. 45th St.
From 01/10/19 Opened 01/14/19 Ends 01/27/19
Review by Simon Saltzman based on preview performance 01/11/19

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