Sunday, January 14, 2018

140 (2017-2018) Review: LaBUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL (seen January 12, 2017)

"Three That Don't Match"
Probably no prominent, contemporary, American playwright has been as significantly supportive of the one-act or short play form as Neil LaBute. In recent years, his own contributions have been seen regularly at 59E59 Theaters at the annual Summer Shorts Festival of New American Plays and the LaBute New Theater Festival.

Chauncy Thomas. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The latter, originating at the St. Louis Actors’ Studio, is back with its third program since 2016, when it showcased six one-acts. Last year’s show had four plays, and this year’s has three. The plays, selected from a national competition, are all making their New York premieres. Each is directed by John Pierson, who has staged at least one play in each of the previous LaBute Festival productions. 

The plays occupy 59E59’s tiny Theater C, in which the audience faces designer Patrick Huber’s unnecessarily substantial set (lit by Jonathan Zelezniak) of marbled gray walls; it represents a hotel room in the first play, a teenage girl’s bedroom in the second, and a woman’s living/dining room in the third. I say unnecessarily because the scenic realism in such a confined space is oppressive and tends to accentuate the performers’ actorish behavior. If you feel like you’re actually in someone’s bedroom, it’s a bit uncomfortable when they act like they’re on a stage. 
Chauncy Thomas, Spencer Sickmann. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Also, a simpler, more imaginative set would not require the rushed but extensive scene change this one gets between the first two plays as stagehands shuffle about in the semi-dark, inches away from us. The night I went a bunch of props hastily placed behind the bed came crashing noisily to the ground and had to be reset.
Spencer Sickmann, Chauncy Thomas. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In past showcases featuring LaBute plays, his have usually been the most sharply honed. Not so in this one, which leads off with his mediocre “Hate Crime,” about two anonymous gay men who are plotting a murder. The dominant, overbearing one is Man 1 (Chauncy Thomas), dressed in a white bathrobe, who plans the crime with the subservient Man 2 (Spencer Sickmann). (The pretentious tic of giving characters nameless names is the bane of anyone having to write about them!) 

Their victim is the guy Man 2 is on the verge of marrying, the aim being for them to cash in on the insurance for which Man 2 will be eligible after his new spouse dies. It’s hard to tell just how seriously LaBute wants us to take his clichéd situation, or how much to notice his tongue pushing at his cheek, but none of it is funny or believable. Man 1 comes off as a violent psychopath and Man 2 a simpering dodo, although Sickmann makes him far more credible than Thomas does Man 1.

“Hate Crime,” which, dramatically speaking, stops almost before it begins, is more of a situation than a play. 
Kelly Schaschl, Autumn Dornfeld, Chauncy Thomas. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
More dramatically satisfying, and socially relevant, is James Haigney’s “Winter Break,” which deals with a situation one can actually imagine taking place in an American household. Joanna (Kelly Schaschl), a pretty, girl-next-door teenager, from an Episcopalian family, has converted to Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, calls herself Aisha, and is heading for a few weeks in Turkey. 

Her mom, Kitty (Autumn Dornfeld), is distraught and tries to talk her out of it; even more upset and ready to do whatever he can to stop her is her Islamophobic brother, Bailey (Sickmann). Despite her protestations, he fears she’ll be radicalized and become a jihadist. 
Kelly Schaschl, Autumn Dornfeld. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Although Haigney gets a sprinkling of laughs out of this situation, it’s a serious dilemma that’s concerning enough to be dramatized, even on the level of family melodrama offered here. Haigney’s treatment, which offers no easy answers, manages to convey the main points about which most non-Muslim audiences might be worrying. 

For all the equanimity most of us would like to be able to muster when considering how we might handle a similar situation, it’s hard not to sympathize with the fears a family faces when a non-Muslim child converts, throws on a hajib, calls herself Aisha, and heads for the Middle East.  
Kelly Schaschl, Spencer Sickmann. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Sickmann shows considerable versatility in switching from the doofus of “Hate Crime” to the overwrought sibling of “Winter Break,” and Dornfeld is satisfactory as the nervous mother, but the promising Schaschl (a St. Louis high school senior) could use more bite.

Following a 10-minute intermission, the program concludes with Carter W. Lewis’s satirical farce, “Percentage America.” It begins as a dinner date between Andrew (Thomas) and Arial (Dornfeld) in the latter’s Washington, D.C., home; it's the kind of first date based on a dating service pairing satirized so often in movies, TV, and plays. (Red flag: first date in a participant’s house and not at a neutral space?) Soon, the couple begins to reveal the truth behind the personal fibs created for their social media profiles.
Autumn Dornfeld, Chauncy Thomas. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
These include Andrew’s having said he was working on his doctorate, an untruth he confesses by revealing that there’s no doctorate involved; he’s merely a pharmacist. This blooper gets an undeserved laugh since, as someone should have noticed, you can’t become a pharmacist without a doctorate! Isn’t there some other profession that would have served? 
Autumn Dornfeld, Chauncy Thomas. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Anyway, seeing how the issue of truth arouses their libidos, the pair (both of them liberals) decide to spend the evening deciphering the percentage of truth in television news; their fact-checking odyssey also serves to further warm them up erotically. (“Truth? I am so hard for this now,” says Andrew.)
Autumn Dornfeld, Chauncy Thomas. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The percentage of truth, of course, turns out to be quite small indeed. This emerges when the intrepid Andrew and Arial, from the comfort of her living room, choose to track down what a girl (Schaschl) accused of hurling verbal abuse at President Trump (unnamed) in the White House Rose Garden actually said. 

Their cardinal rule is to rely only on phone calls and avoid using the untrustworthy Internet. Along the way, the distorted accounts of what happened—such as how the girl might be a terrorist—are reported by various anchors (all played by Schaschl) spotlighted at one side of the stage.

The potential for pertinent journalistic satire is strong but the treatment—which manages to get in some tired jabs at Trump—is far too broad, goes on too long, has barely any sting, and isn’t as funny as it seems to think it is. Once Lewis makes his point, he makes it over and over again. The energetically performed “Percentage America” is a 15-minute sketch inflated to a half-hour play.

Given the hundreds of one-acts submitted to festivals like this, I’m always surprised at how infrequently anything truly impressive comes along. The theatre appears to be a harder taskmaster at creating short-form work than TV, for example, where so many quality dramas and comedies are squeezed into a half-hour (or shorter, with commercials) series episode, even those done in a single, conventional, living room setting. Shouldn’t theatre be taking the lead, not lagging behind?


59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through February 4