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Theater Review (Off-Broadway NYC): LaBute Theater Festival

Justin Ivan Brown, Jenny Smith, PRESENT TENSE, Nancy Bell, Peter Grandbois, LaBute Theatre Festival, 59E59 Theaters
L-R: Justin Ivan Brown and Jenny Smith in PRESENT TENSE by Nancy Bell and Peter Grandbois, part of the LaBute Theatre Festival at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Celebrating terrific playwright and writer, Neil LaBute, the St. Louis Actors’ Studio is premiering its LaBute New Theater Festival in New York, an evening of intriguing and finely acted new one-act plays. Directed by Milton Zoth and John Pierson, the works tie in beautifully, moving from lighthearted, comedic fun to the darker elements of human nature and the tragedy of a modern society which sends off young soldiers to fight in foreign wars only to return ill-equipped to re-socialize into a culture oblivious to their needs.

Stand Up for Oneself by Lexi Wolfe features adorable and flirty 20-something Lila and dour, conservative and intellectual Lucas. Both have wandered into an antechamber of a friend’s party because the other guests are boring and they prefer to be alone. As Lila introduces herself and with witty conversation engages the initially reticent Lucas, they discover they have more in common than appearances first reveal. With Wolfe’s clever dialogue and the directors’ well-tuned pace and tone, adept actors Alicia Smith and Mark Ryan Anderson subtly show that there may be more to human relationships, fateful meetings and sympatico empathy between individuals than we could intuit or imagine.

Continuing the comedy and romance is the humorous, clever Present Tense by Peter Grandbois and Nancy Bell. Internet match-ups Martin and Debra hook up in a hotel, then engage in lascivious wordplay online. How does one separate imagination from reality and then blow through the savvy word foreplay and walls of fear to confront the desired one “in the flesh?” Jenny Smith and Justin Ivan Brown are hysterical as they move their characters through shyness, tensions and uncertainty Love and desire as virtual behaviors are cleverly emphasized in this fine one-act that adults of all ages will readily identify with.

Mark Ryan Anderson, TWO IRISHMEN ARE DIGGING A DITCH, G.D. Kimble, LaBute Theatre Festival, 59E59 Theaters
Mark Ryan Anderson in TWO IRISHMEN ARE DIGGING A DITCH by G.D. Kimble, part of the LaBute Theatre Festival at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg

In a stark transition from comic lightness to sardonic irony and dark humor, the directors next present Two Irishmen Are Digging a Ditch by G.D. Kimble. This is a two scene one-act which opens on the badly beaten, soaking wet, bruised and naked Haggerty (Mark Ryan Anderson is appropriately frenetic and enraged), who is in County Antrim near Belfast, Northern Ireland in the basement of a building. Haggerty rails and rants against his tormentors, though we never see them. We understand that the wounds between the factions in Belfast run deep and though the war has been solved by a peace treaty, there are still hard feelings and a payment that must be exacted. To entertain his captors, the scene concludes as Haggerty tells a joke about two Irishmen digging a ditch.

In the second scene there is one Irishman (Doyle) digging a hole and another (Evans) who watches as he sits, pistol to his side and drinks a beer from a six-pack. Evans (Neil Magnuson) and Doyle (Justin Ivan Brown) are matter-of-fact and sanguine. But as they converse we sense the animosity between them (a moderated, fine job by both actors). It is then that we realize that their interplay is a continuation of the strife played out in the first scene. An uncertain vengeance is in the air and it will probably continue long after both of these men have left this plane of existence. This theme of violence begetting violence is a key to this presentation as they scenes are tied together with sardonic humor in the retelling of the joke that by the end of the play has gained symbolic significance.

One of the most clever, vibrant and enjoyable of the one-acts is The Comeback Special by JJ Strong, with savvy direction so that the actors can easily bring on the whimsical playfulness. There is the superbly timed, hysterical performance by Neil Magnuson as Elvis Presley, the spot-on moment-to-moment authenticity by Michael Hogan as Jesse and the flippant, endearing openness of Alicia Smith as Bonnie. Bonnie and Jesse are on a journey to visit the tourist highlights of the U.S. On a tour of Graceland, Elvis’s homestead, they sneak into the King’s bedroom when the guard isn’t watching. When the long-dead (or so we thought) Elvis shows up, the events move from surprise to laugh riot. Part of the great good humor of this one-act is that the actors are invested, their portrayals real. They appear to be enjoying themselves immensely.

Alicia Smith, Neil Magnuson, Michael Hogan, THE COMEBACK SPECIAL, JJ Strong, LaBute Theatre Festival, 59E59 Theaters
L-R: Alicia Smith, Neil Magnuson and Michael Hogan in THE COMEBACK
SPECIAL by JJ Strong, part of the LaBute Theatre Festival at 59E59 Theaters. Photo Carol

In Coffee House, Greenwich Village by John Doble we believe we are revisiting a combination of the first two one-acts where couples meet and get together. However, the directors are continuing with the dark themes of attraction to violence and subterranean power dynamics when Pamela (a seductive, manic, nervous Jenny Smith), meets Jack (Justin Ivan Brown portrays the innocent, moral good guy beautifully), for the first time and their rendezvous ends up in a thrilling event which Pamela manipulates into reality. Mark Ryan Anderson is the arrogant Waiter who attempts to come between them and ends up regretting that he ever interfered. Directors starkly emphasize the play’s theme that unconscious and dangerous impulses may be the twisted bond that cements a sexual relationship. That the warping motives most likely will turn into catastrophe as the relationship continues is revealed in the nuanced performances by Smith and Brown.

The most complex and trenchant of the one-acts, carrying the themes of Coffee House, Greenwich Village into a dark devolution, is the one-act by Neil LaBute, Kandahar. LaBute’s work also is the most tragic, poignant and real of the six plays. In a beautifully authentic and adept performance, Michael Hogan starts, “…she made me do it.” We are engaged as to the how and what, coming off the previous play. Did “she” manipulate him with her sexual wiles? We find out gradually and by degrees who the gentleman is as he confesses his angst and chronicles his history as a young kid, who “overall was a good person,” inheriting his mother’s positive qualities. But when he was sent to Afghanistan he “did shit to people.” And when he discusses whether or not the investigators “had to bring…some guy like him down,” we know immediately that as a soldier who the military has trained to kill, he cannot come down, despite the captain telling him to “take it easy,” and the doctor checking up on him.

What makes the last presentation so powerful is LaBute’s expert character development, which Hogan conveys beautifully in his slow reveal that this man was a soldier and that he has gone over the edge. With the help of fine direction, Hogan’s man is not manic or frantic. Nor is he a hyper, glassy-eyed Manson. He is calm. With a natural ease he confesses his story like he was discussing how to bake a cake. He smiles from time to time and is a regular “Joe,” but the wounds are so deep, his soul so destroyed, this “normalcy” is all he has to keep him from “bouncing off the walls.” LaBute reveals that what the Man has done and what he has become is most probably happening now, and will happen again and again in this country. Such is the nature of war; such is the result of young men becoming soldiers. And it is impossible to divine how broken they might become without proper socialization, therapy and continued follow-ups. Without this, each veteran is a ticking time bomb.

The LaBute New Theater Festival is well worth the evening out taking you to the highs of comedy and the depths of troublesome issues that stare at us through the looks of returning soldiers of the Iraq and Afghan wars. It runs until February 7 at 59E59 Theaters.

About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, playwright, novelist, poet. She owns and manages three well-established blogs: 'The Fat and the Skinny,' 'All Along the NYC Skyline' ( 'A Christian Apologists' Sonnets.' She also manages the newly established 'Carole Di Tosti's Linchpin,' which is devoted to foreign theater reviews and guest reviews. She contributed articles to Technorati (310) on various trending topics from 2011-2013. To Blogcritics she has contributed 583+ reviews, interviews on films and theater predominately. Carole Di Tosti also has reviewed NYBG exhibits and wine events. She guest writes for 'Theater Pizzazz' and has contributed to 'T2Chronicles,' 'NY Theatre Wire' and other online publications. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She professionally free-lanced for TMR and VERVE for 1 1/2 years. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely, Ph.D. Her novel 'Peregrine: The Ceremony of Powers' will be on sale in January 2021. Her full length plays, 'Edgar,' 'The Painter on His Way to Work,' and 'Pandemics or How Maria Caught Her Vibe' are being submitted for representation and production.

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