LaBute New Theater Festival: Light When We Wanted Darker
There are two reasons to attend the four short play evening being referred to as the LaBute New Theater Festival. One is a play, the other is a performer.
The first reason is also the first play, What Happens in Vegas. Written by Neil LaBute, it is by far the strongest in style and playfulness. It has a professional edge to the dialogue that the other three one acts lack. The play begins with a couple in the middle of copulation silhouetted by soft lights in a bedroom. What develops after between the two fine actors (Michael Hogan and Clea Alsip) is smart, funny, and surprising, with a refreshing twist to bring it to a close. Its substance is light and simple, and not as dark as I guess I was hoping for, but a sexy pleasure nonetheless.
The second, American Outlaws by Adam Seidel, also tries to surprise us with a twist and a jolt, but the writing is not as fluid or believable. Too many times the two actors Justin Ivan Brown and Eric Dean White had to sprout lines that felt false and pedestrian, when the play was going for menace and a thrill. The two give it a good try but the messy format did them no favors. A triangle involving a hit-man, a shady accountant, and his wife is made more complex than need be (did we really need that complicated scene change?) by director John Pierson and the design team (Patrick Huber: set design; Jonathan Zelezniak: lighting design; Carla Evans: costume and prop design). The lack of a clear and deeply engaging focus made it difficult to invest in the plot or the final blow. For a short play, it felt too long.
The third, Homebody by Gabe McKinley and directed by John Pierson begins with characters that were irritating to be in the room with. An angry bad tempered son and flailing writer (Michael Hogan, who was much more on-point in the first play) is forced to live at home with his passive aggressive mother (Donna Weinsting), who at times is supportive but also, prone to attacking with a bat of an eye. The dialogue is repetitive and the mood swings difficult to swallow, but there is a kernel of intrigue mashed down somewhere in the piece. Some work to bring it out and a bit more nuance in the relationship would greatly improve the flow and foster our engagement. The surprise twist is not so surprising, too blatant in its foreshadowing, nor is the dynamic backed up by a realistic stance.
The final piece, a humorous skit of a play, does bring back the second reason to see this festival lineup. Clea Alsip literally walks in and saves us from the impending monotony of a one note joke being delivered farcically and a bit too over the top by Brown. White also seems to be a bit adrift; at a loss of what to do to raise it above the ridiculous. There’s an element of wicked fun skewing the PhD-driven rhetoric of the absurd that helps Alsip become crucial, but it’s also her investment in the details that make them ring true. She slaps the piece together, as she did in the LaBute play with another fully invested performance. She turns Mark My Worms, by Cary Pepper and directed by Michael Hogan into a much funnier piece than it deserves to be.
The four plays are all a bit too light in substance to make this a fulfilling night of one acts, but a cast that works hard to elevate the individual pieces doesn’t hurt. It’s a wonderful thing that LaBute is lending his name and talents to foster new work, I just wish they all could manage to rise to the same level of the namesake’s play, but at least Aslip is there in the finale to bring it back home with a smile.