The Review: St. Louis Actors’ Studio presents the LaBute New Theater Festival
The Fourth Reich, Great Negro Works of Art, Unlikely Japan
Truth be told, is somewhat the thread that holds these three one-act plays by Neil LaBute together. Funny, knowing that there is quite the storm of some sort crashing around this playwright’s sky, making truth a complex entity. But there it is, being tossed up before us. And it is done quite solidly, giving a master class times three on how to create uneasy drama and intent in short form. LaBute, best known for rattling chains in numerous compelling plays, such as All the Ways to Say I Love You, Reasons to be Pretty, and Fat Pig, never fails to find a twist in his punch, and an edge to his tongue, and for that bite, I’m rarely disappointed, sometimes offended, but generally curious. In his three one-act plays, The Fourth Reich, Great Negro Works of Art, and Unlikely Japan, with a simple but elegant set design by Patrick Huber, discrete and perfect costuming by Megan Harshaw, lighting and technical direction by Jonathan Zelezniak, and sound design by John Pierson, they each get a polished presentation that digs deep into the idea of truth-telling and fact checking. Each of the three find a compelling circle of earthen dirt to dig into, regardless of the dynamic and/or topic, whether it is history, art, or interpersonal relationships that is buried below.
It’s definitely an uncomfortable space to say the least, when The Fourth Reich swings into place, unearthing an idea that is both fascinating and disturbingly callous in its upfront ‘Ted Talk’ delivery by the strong-willed Eric Dean White (American Outlaws, LaBute New Theater Festival 2017). As directed by John Pierson, the Associate Artistic Director of STLAS, who also helms the second piece, Great Negro Works of Art, the audience that this opinionated text is being aimed at and intended for is perplexing and hot, and the space created for this one-sided discussion seems somewhat pointless in the overall arch of the dig, but what it does unearth is a strongly written monologue deconstructing an idea that wouldn’t sit well in most people’s backyard. It’s a theory about history being written only by the winners, and an idea that the facts point to an unpopular formulation that is being ignored by the masses. A timely topic for LaBute to try to plant before us. And possibly brave and foolish. The title of the piece gives you a strong cue, but the repetition of the argument and the slant of the shovel fail to root up anything digestible, beyond intrigue and a curiosity of the point.
The Tom and Jerri routine of the second piece asks a few other complicated questions revolving around the concept of truth-telling in the politically sensitive culture, particularly in what’s spoken and heard. Portrayed beautifully by the talented Brenda Meaney (RTC’s Indian Ink) and the handsomely sly KeiLyn Durrel Jones (Crowded Outlet’s Lone Star Spirits), the blind date app collision entangled the two in their words with such authentic and discreet ease that both seem utterly surprised to find them at odds when the physical chemistry is so strong. It’s a timely piece of complex engagement that is exemplified by the scrambled title of the art show they meet up at, and the title of the play, Great Negro works of Art. Why LaBute is telling this tale and the previous one is obvious but messy, like trying to ferret out all the roots of an infestation of weeds in a crowded flower bed. The damage is sneaky and hard to get rid of.
Unlikely Japan is a great bookend, a similar but oddly different monologue that works well wrapping this idea of truth-telling up in a neat parcel of three. Starring the engaging Gia Crovatin (TFANA’s Pericles) and directed by LaBute himself this time, the confessional of bad behavior and guilt is both expertly done and presented while also being somewhat simplistic compared to the other two. It revolves around the mass shooting in Vegas, but is more about the shame and sadness of not being sad about an old boyfriend who lost touch who tragically was one of the 40 or 50. Her romantic remorseful tale is gorgeously recited but like the first fails to suggest a reason for being told, beyond an admission of disconnection and dissociation. She is well constructed, oddly blasé, but authentically created, just like every other character in these three short one acts, and although the concept feels timely and real, the feeling that we walk out with is less grounded and nutritiously filling, with tangled thin roots that haven’t grown very deep into this contaminated soil.
It’s been a long time since I saw one of his more controversial plays, I think at the MCC, like Fat Pig and Reasons to be Pretty. I did love his Judith Light vehicle, All the Ways… which asks at the beginning of that 60 minute monologue, “What is the weight of a lie?”; another reference to the concept of truth-telling and deception, but she holds back on the answer. We all know that there is no one single truthful answer, rather she gives us instead something that is a tangled web of rationalizations, admissions, and untruths, wrapped around a story as simple and complex as one can imagine. The writing highlights what LaBute does best, telling detailed and strange stories of attraction, bad behavior, and shame, forcing us to look at lies and truths through a lens that is warped. I also, while watching these three one acts, wondered what happened to his premiere that was supposed to be arriving this spring at MCC. When searching the twitter universe for Neil LaBute, you get unsurprisingly smacked in the head with people offended by his writings and his plays, begging for him to be censored or shaming those who are connected to or like his work. I know there is a story somewhere to be told about his split this theatrical season, and with tweets asking “why is Neil LaBute still being produced?” and proclaiming him a “sexist fantasy” “monster“, I would love to know the whole story. Is he a writer to be hated and villianized within the #MeToo universe? I’ll let you all decide amongst yourself, as within is the only place that truly matters when it comes to art. There is a debate and a discussion to be had, but I’m not going to get involved in that here, as there are too many broad strokes that could be applied, and far too many ways to deconstruct writing, plays, and politics into simplistic bullet points.
Like the lead character in the first play, who wonders out loud, about the story that becomes ‘truth’ told by the winner in a conflict. Will that winner be the one to lay out and present the library of LaBute plays? I have my idea of the truth, but it’s also a complicated and disruptive stance. He states in his first play that a “person’s not just one thing” with the facts being facts, and the rest, opinion. In someway, there is truth in that statement, but is there really a problem stating emphatically our own opinionated world view, like that Gillette ad? You tell me. But in the end, the play’s the thing, and these three are good, but planted in shallow earth.