autobahn by Neil LaBute
Can there be anything like the confinement of an automobile trip to force speech if not conversation? Or to make silence especially apparent and awkward? The situation has been frequently used for short scenes in TV and movies, but Neil LaBute may be the first to make a whole evening out of it on stage. For autobahn, a series of six one acts all set in the front seat of an automobile, the setting proves to be an effective (forgive the pun) vehicle for his continued exploration of abusive, controlling, or otherwise toxic relationships. Once again, the tiny storefront space of Profiles Theatre is ideal for helping the audience feel the claustrophobic tension of an uncomfortable conversation from which one can't escape.
The program opens with bench seat, in which a graduate student (Eric Burgher) deals with the growing realization that his girlfriend (Julie Zarlenga) has a borderline personality. They're parked at a lovers lane which, according to the girl, is used either for making out or breaking up, and as the conversation continues, the man (played by Burgher as a decent and justifiably nervous guy) appears to wonder which scenario will be worse. Zarlenga could be a little subtler and scarier but still makes us happy we're not the one in the car with her. long division provides a little breather, as a young redneck (Tyler Gray) is driving his buddy (Brian Kavanaugh) in the general direction of his ex-girlfriend's house and trying to convince him to storm in and retrieve a possession the friend left there. Gray has some fun with the character's ranting, which doesn't require a great deal of nuance, while Kavanaugh, who has only one line, is believably sullen throughout and keeps us guessing as to how he's processing his friend's exhortations.
Things get a bit creepier with the first act closer, road trip, concerning a middle-aged man and a teenage girl on their way to a remote cabin. LaBute gradually reveals that the man is a high school gym teacher and the girl one of his students; the purpose of their trip is not as innocent as the girl may be thinking. Jack McCabe is transparently manipulative as the teacher and Amy Spiecken believably naïve.
Director Darrell W. Cox has rearranged the one acts from their order as performed in the piece's US premiere at the Studio Theatre in Washington, DC this past January and coincidentally (according to Cox), the three pieces of the second half of the program are all concerned with married couples. The couple in all apologies, the first piece of the second half, are returning home from a soccer game at which the husband (David Earl White) has apparently committed an offense against the wife and is angrily trying to justify his actions as she sits silently – she's speechless but reacting nonetheless through Annette Olszewski's effective and touching facial expressions that evolve from anger through shock and a desire to reconcile. The next couple (Joe Jahraus and Katie Crawford), in the act entitled merge, are both highly verbal, as the husband interrogates the wife into revealing more than she had intended about an event that occurred on the business trip from which she's returning. The evening concludes with the titular piece, autobahn. In it, a soft-spoken and gentle wife (Veronica Shaeffer) has all the lines, as she earnestly tries to process a life-changing series of events and decisions the couple has just made regarding a troubled foster child they've given up. While the wife bravely tries to make sense of the situation, the couple's heartbreak is reflected in the countenance and subtle body language of the husband (Bill Hyland).
As an actor, director Cox is a master of anguished, yet understated and naturalistic characterizations, and autobahn gives him the opportunity to share his techniques with his impressive cast of twelve. Though the performers are confined to their car seats and separated from the audience by set designer John Zuiker's automobile (the frames of a windshield and hood), they never feel static, thanks to their nuanced body language and readings.
It's a fascinating program, yet it suffers from some repetitiveness, such as the way in which four of the six plays begin with their crisis well underway and their characters ranting at full volume from the get-go. Additionally, all of the plays use a structure in which the premise is slowly revealed after a few false herrings are thrown out. Still, there's a range in the tones of the playlets from black comedy to dark drama that keeps things interesting, and LaBute's gift for creating car-wreck characters that you look away from makes for an engrossing evening.
autobahn is performed on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 7:00 p.m. and has been extended through May 28th at Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway, Chicago. Tickets, $22.00 on Fridays and Saturdays and $18.00 on Sundays, can be ordered by calling 773-549-1815 or visiting Profiles online at www.profilestheatre.org.