The six short plays comprising the LaBute New Theater Festival might have been collectively titled something like Love and Murder, two themes clearly on the playwrights’ minds. The number of weapons on stage or implied in these entirely independent scenarios says something about where our collective heads are at.
The depiction of love and relationships doesn’t say much good about our romantic lives, either, with one exception.
That exception is the opening effort, a sweet miniature by Lexi Wolfe about a disabled loner and a free spirit who find a surprising chance at love. The talented Alicia Smith makes a thoroughly charming New York debut here in Stand Up For Oneself, the first of her two roles of the evening.
Playwrights Peter Grandbois and Nancy Bell offer a more troubled, hyper-modern look at romance in the funny but naggingly disturbing Present Tense. Two married people conduct a frustrating long-distance affair via email and text message, their steamy rhetoric undermined by their physical distance. Staging the ongoing “action” over the hotel room bed where they’d had their only “real” encounter makes their frustration all the more painfully entertaining, while clever use of props and other theatrical artifice makes the real and virtual worlds coexist in the same space, a neat if occasionally confusing trick.
After that hopeful note, Two Irishmen Are Digging a Ditch by G.D. Kimble lands a gut punch. A naked, severely beaten Irishman delivers an angry monologue indicting a nightmarish society of neighbors informing on neighbors overseen by a brutal state. Though the shadow of the Troubles hangs heavily over the action, it becomes clear we’re in a world more Orwellian than Fenian. But Mark Ryan Anderson’s brave, intense performance and the shocking ending to the second, final scene don’t make up for the structural confusion (in the context of the evening, we think the play’s over after the first scene) and woozy pace.
Alicia Smith returns in the cute miniature The Comeback Special, this time as a woman in a relationship that seems doomed – until a ghostly presence brings her and her annoying boyfriend together, with the help of murder weapons and self-medication. Playwright JJ Strong charges the action with zany fun and wraps it up neatly. By contrast, the twist in John Doble’s misconceived Coffee House, Greenwich Village comes far too late, long after its two main characters have bored us silly with unfocussed, pedestrian dialogue.
Neil LaBute himself, a noted and sometimes controversial playwright and filmmaker, contributes the evening’s powerful closer, a monologue by a soldier (Michael Hogan in a searing performance) who has committed a terrible act after returning from several tours of duty in Afghanistan. His confession takes in not only what he’s done to avenge his wife’s infidelity, but also a different kind of crime he committed during the war, effectively making the point, both in so many words and via his enormously troubled yet frighteningly sane character, that soldiers trained to kill can’t be expected to merge back into a peaceful society with no harm done.
With nothing but a glass of water, a fold-up table for his hands to clutch, a terrifying stillness in his stare, and LaBute’s devastating language, this soldier at the end of his bloody road shows us what war reveals about human nature. It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s knife-sharp theater.
The LaBute New Theater Festival from the St. Louis Actors’ Studio is at 59E59 Theaters through Feb. 7.