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LaBute New Theater Festival

Theatre Review by Howard Miller


Alicia Smith, Neil Magnuson, and Michael Hogan
Photo by Carol Rosegg

A new work by Neil LaBute does not put in an appearance until the very end of the evening of six short pieces that constitute the LaBute New Theater Festival at 59E59 Theaters, but when it does, it is a humdinger--misanthropic and disturbing, and unmitigated by the playwright's usual offbeat humor.

Titled Kandahar, the play presents us with a U. S. soldier in military custody following a post-tour-of-duty shooting rampage in which he killed his wife, a fellow soldier he believes was her lover, and a number of bystanders. Sadly, real-life incidents of this sort have become the stuff of newscasts, but bearing witness to an up close and personal recounting by the perpetrator (a truly scary portrayal by Michael Hogan) makes for a memorably disconcerting theatrical experience.

There is little that is light and fluffy about the one-acts that were selected for inclusion by the St. Louis Actors' Studio where the festival originated. But there is at least one very funny romantic comedy, JJ Strong's The Comeback Special. In it, a young couple (Alicia Smith and Mr. Hogan) sneak away from a tour of Graceland and find themselves in Elvis Presley's bedroom. The King (gloriously embodied by Neil Magnuson) may be dead, but apparently he has not left the building. We'll leave it to him to explain.

Alicia Smith also appears in the evening's opening play,Stand Up For Oneself by Lexi Wolfe, about a pickup at a party. The interactions between Ms. Smith's character and a music professor 20 years her senior (Mark Ryan Anderson) have both a flirty and an intelligent quality as she attempts to draw him out. But the play itself is the least substantial of the six and feels as though it might be a scene culled from a lengthier work-in-progress.

Two other pieces take a look at the current state of the dating game. In Peter Grandbois and Nancy Bell's Present Tense, a married woman and a married man (Jenny Smith and Justin Ivan Brown) are carrying on an affair of sorts via laptop computers and cell phones. There is both comedy and pathos to their efforts to connect. The same is true in another of the plays, Coffee House, Greenwich Village by John Doble, which takes on that most awkward of situations, the first date. Jenny Smith and Mr. Anderson play the couple, awkwardly feeling each other out over espressos and ice cream, while Mr. Brown does a wonderful turn as a thoroughly obnoxious waiter as the date turns into a bloody caper story that manages to pay a passing nod to Macbeth.

Just as the second half of the evening ends on a theme of violence, so does the first half. G. D. Kimble's Two Irishmen Are Digging A Ditch gives us a captured, naked, beaten, and bloodied member of the Irish Republican Army (Mr. Anderson), who goes on a rant about being ratted on just as he is about to be shot to death. A momentary blackout follows, after which we are introduced to another man (Mr. Brown) who is digging a ditch under the watchful eye of someone seated in a lawn chair (Mr. Magnuson). The two scenes are connected by a joke based on the play's title, though the play as a whole covers some very serious territory.

All told, the LaBute New Theater Festival offers up a solid evening of one-acts by multiple playwrights and a strong company of actors. Much credit should go to co-directors Milton Zoth and John Pierson, who have done a masterful job of finding ways to connect and transition the pieces through a quick rearrangement of the sets, the selection of incidental music, and by the order in which the plays are presented.


LaBute New Theater Festival
Through February 7
59E59 Theater C, 59 East 59th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral


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