Few writers can match Neil LaBute‘s ability to muscle the hateful sides of human nature into full relief. His new one-act play Hate Crime spearheads the latest edition of the LaBute New Theater Festival by gleefully corrupting the usual meaning of that term, as two gay lovers plot to disguise a love-triangle murder as a gay-bashing hate crime.
The simple story’s horror and thrill lie in the execution (no pun intended). Man 1 (a scarily plastic Spencer Sickmann) and Man 2 (a tinderbox turn by Chauncy Thomas) have developed a mutual passion so corrupting that they’ve planned the cold-blooded killing of the one person in their way. The subtle brilliance of LaBute’s script, brought to life by these fine performances and John Pierson’s slick staging, is in making these men totally recognizable even in their monstrousness. Cases in point: Man 1 gets shy when the graphic details of sex come to mind. Man 2 suddenly turns from tender to explosive when he forgets the name of a famous actor. The compact little play is full of such telling moments daringly realized.
Both of the other two one-acts on the bill are built around wonderful ideas, and both fail to play out entirely successfully. James Haigney’s Winter Break brings us a family divided by religion, philosophy, and fear. Having converted to Islam and renamed herself Aisha, high-schooler Joanna (Kelly Schaschl) is packing for a putative winter break trip to Turkey to study with a Sufi religious leader. But her mother Kitty (Autumn Dornfeld) fears she’s losing her daughter more permanently, and her gay brother Bailey (Sickmann) equates Islam with Islamic extremism that puts “gays and women at the top of the hit list.” The three ably represent the complex and conflicting issues and attitudes surrounding the “clash of cultures” Islamic extremist terror has ginned up through the 21st century.
Unfortunately, in spite of Sickmann’s efforts to inflame Bailey with passion, Joanna/Aisha’s angry brother comes across more as a mouthpiece for a point of view than a character. The play doesn’t give Dornfeld much to hang her substantial talents on either. Most important, Schaschl gives the impression of reciting rather than living her lines, and thus fails to convince as Joanna/Aisha. To be fair, Haigney’s dialogue, formal rather than naturalistic, sounds more like a scripted debate than a passionate exchange. Very accomplished actors can make this sort of writing feel natural, or make us not care if it doesn’t. But Schaschl does not seem up to the task.
She returns more winningly in a supporting role in Carter W. Lewis’s Percentage America. But this play too starts with a compelling idea and falls short of blossoming. It starts at an awkward first date between two 40-somethings, Arial and Andrew (Dornfeld and Thomas), who shed their initial caution to come hilariously clean about everything they lied about in their online profiles. The play takes a surprising turn when the game they dive into isn’t erotic but reportorial, trying to strip away the hype from a news story and find out the plain truth.
The story spins out of control. Eschewing the untrustworthy internet, the amateur sleuths pursue leads on the phone as Schaschl delivers overhyped cable news-style reports. Then she has an powerful scene as the teenage girl at the center of the story.
The opening sequence’s laughs and sharp wit dissolve into confusing sound and fury punctuated by cheap shots. Halfway through, I was lost; I didn’t know what was happening anymore, the incisive original idea frittered away amid frantic action.
The play does get at an important aspect of our media-saturated age, and Dornfeld and Thomas both deliver strong performances. Dornfeld’s Arial is especially honest and vivid, every feeling and every dimension of her enthusiasm written unbroken on her face and in her body language. With a more cohesive narrative, it would have been a performance centering a production worthy of the hyperactive cable news.
The LaBute New Theater Festival is at 59e59 Theaters through Feb. 4. For tickets, visit the website or box office or call 212-279-4200.