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LaBute New Theater Festival

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - January 18, 2017

Michael Hogan and Clea Alsip
Photo by Carol Rosegg

The St. Louis Actors' Studio production of short plays, the LaBute New Theater Festival, has returned to 59E59 Theaters for a second visit, this time floating in with a much lighter tone than last year's collection of works that included some decidedly more violent plays. That edition featured a deeply disturbing piece written by the festival's namesake, Neil LaBute, about a shooting rampage carried out by a deeply disturbed post-tour-of-duty soldier. This year, however, the production skews towards the comic end of the scale with its four offerings, a new work by Mr. LaBute that is being seen for the first time and three others that are having their New York debuts.

Each play runs a little under 30 minutes. The first, and the cleverest, is the new LaBute work, titled What Happens In Vegas. It features an excellent Clea Alsip as an enterprising prostitute who provides her clients with room-service menus outlining her fees. "Small talk," for example, will cost you $25.00 per fifteen minutes, while a "dirty Sanchez" (if you are curious, look it up!) will set you back some big bucks. She and the client (Michael Hogan) go over the options as she tries to sell him on some of the more exotic and costly adventures. She even throws in her employee's discount to reduce the price. ("The agency doesn't love it," she says, "but, hey, I like you.") It's quite funny to watch Mr. Hogan trying to figure out what he wants against what he can afford. And once they work it out and start going about their business, the look on Ms. Alsip's face is priceless.

Almost as enjoyable is Cary Pepper's Mark My Worms, a poke at the pretentiousness of academic theater analysis and criticism. Justin Ivan Brown plays an overly excited director of a theater company that has obtained permission to produce a newly-discovered early work by a renowned absurdist playwright. Minor detail: the script they are using is full of typos, yet the playwright's estate insists the performance must adhere strictly to what is on the page. Eric Dean White and Clea Alsip are the actors (Mason and Gloria) who must try to make sense out of such lines as: "I have a bun. Come out, or I'll hoot." Mason is reluctant to move forward with the project, but Gloria whips out a Ph.D. thesis that argues that the playwright's so-called typos were deliberate and brilliant absurdist inventions. By the end, they are all convinced they will be shoo-ins for a Tony nomination. As with LaBute's play, Pepper's Mark My Worms does not overextend its premise and has the sense to end while we're still caught up in the grand silliness of it all.

Neither of the other two plays quite reaches the degree of sharpness in their writing or their timing. Adam Seidel's American Outlaws parodies a killer-for-hire story. It involves a mob hit man (Justin Ivan Brown) and the person who is paying him to do a job (Eric Dean White). There are a number of plot twists as the two interact, but the whole thing is too convoluted, even with the play's smartly ambiguous ending.

The fourth play is Gabe McKinley's Homebody, featuring Michael Hogan and Donna Weinsting as a struggling writer and his mother, who live under one roof and irritate the living hell out of each other. It does go on for too long, but there is enjoyable comic pleasure to be found as the two go at it. The play as a whole has the air of an episode of the old television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with a suitably, if predictable, wry ending.

Overall, the contributions by Mr. LaBute and Mr. Pepper in particular make for a worthwhile evening for fans of short plays. Although light on scenic design, it's still fun to watch these one-acts unfold with quick set changes and clever ways the company has found to make sly connections among the four works. For instance, the prostitute's menu in the first play is replaced by an actual restaurant menu in the second, and a tune from a well-known musical is used as an appropriate segue into one of the plays. It's also a good opportunity to observe three different directing styles. Michael Hogan, who appears in two of the plays, directs Mark My Worms; Kel Haney directs What Happens In Vegas; and John Pierson does the honors for American Outlaws and Homebody.

LaBute New Theater Festival
Through February 5
59E59 Theater C, 59 East 59th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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