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LaBute New Theater Festival

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - January 14, 2018

Autumn Dornfeld and Chauncy Thomas
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Fans of playwright Neil LaBute, a specialist in works about men and women behaving badly within the intersection of sex and power (among them, Fat Pig, reasons to be pretty, and All The Ways To Say I Love You) are likely to be disappointed in his personal contribution to the evening of three short plays that make up the 2018 edition of the St. Louis Actors' Studio's LaBute New Theater Festival, opening tonight at 59E59 Theaters.

It's not that his piece, Hate Crime, eschews sex and power. It's about both, actually. It's just that the playwright has nothing new to say about either of them. Instead, he merely gives a slight twist to the film noir trope about a pair of lovers planning to murder the spouse of one of them and run off with the insurance money. Spoiler alert: the lovers (Chauncy Thomas and Spencer Sickmann) and the never-seen spouse are gay. Otherwise, it's the 1944 movie classic Double Indemnity, but without the star power of Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, or director Billy Wilder at the helm.

Fortunately, the actors, as well as the festival's director John Pierson, fare much better with the evening's other two entries, James Haigney's Winter Break, and, especially, the clever and imaginative closing piece, Carter W. Lewis's Percentage America.

Both of these plays provide fresh takes on topical issues. Haigney's Winter Break imagines the impact on a white Episcopalian suburban family when the college-age daughter (Kelly Schaschl) converts to Islam and announces her plans to spend the time between semesters to travel to Turkey in order to study with a group of Sufi Muslim mystics. The mother (Autumn Dornfeld) is torn between trusting her daughter's judgment and fearing for her safety. Mr. Sickmann, a standout in this role, joins the battle as the argumentative but loving older brother who foresees the worst possible outcome and provides enough evidence to suggest his sister isn't being entirely honest with them when she promises to return home in a couple of weeks. Although the subject matter is not unfamiliar, the playwright has done an especially fine job of suggesting how young college students, away from home for the first time, are susceptible to the seduction of the ideals espoused by others. He wisely ends the play by leaving us on tenterhooks as to what will ensue.

In Percentage America, Carter W. Lewis asks us to consider the question, "do you think the truth is worth knowing," as he brings together a man (Mr. Thomas) and a woman (Ms. Dornfeld) on a first date. At first, the play seems to be a light-hearted romantic comedy, with lots of confessions about their not-entirely-accurate profiles on the dating website that brought them together. But it evolves into something far more intriguing as the pair embarks on a fact-checking adventure, not about each other, but about an item in the news that has become a mainstream and social media sensation. It is about a high school student (Ms. Schaschl) who was found wandering about the Rose Garden at the White House and had some sort of contact with President Trump. Reports on the incident vary, depending on the source (Fox vs. CNN vs. Twitter), and so the couple decides to investigate for themselves. In the end, they wind up as the only ones who know what actually happened and how it led to a disturbing outcome. It solidifies their bond, but leaves them unsure as to what to do with the truth now that they have uncovered it.

Viewing short plays of the sort that make up this evening is a good way for discovering new or unfamiliar talents. Mr. LaBute, of course, is an established and Tony-nominated playwright who will undoubtedly be back with something of more substance than what he has to offer here. But what makes the evening worthwhile is the opportunity to see the well-constructed, thought-provoking, and original works by Mr. Haigney and by Mr. Lewis. These are nicely supported by the company's mix-and-match cast, and Patrick Huber's simple but efficient set design, in which elements of each of the plays are quickly rearranged during brief breaks to make way for the next.

LaBute New Theater Festival
Through Feburary 4
59E59 Theater C, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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