Story: The sixth annual LaBute New Theater Festival, hosted by St. Louis Actors’ Studio, opened last weekend at Gaslight Theater for a month-long run. The first installment, running through July 15, features four different one-act plays, including one by festival namesake Neil LaBute.

Four plays also will be presented in Set Two, which will be performed July 20-29, with LaBute’s effort part of that segment as well along with three other entries.

In The Fourth Reich, a pleasant-looking man is seated in a chair, with a tiny side table to his right. He begins to speak to someone else, who may be the audience, or another group of people, or maybe just a person or two. Who is he and whom exactly is he addressing?

He seems such a pleasant chap that we’re disarmed when he begins to talk about a favorite subject of his, Adolf Hitler. The more he speaks, the more it is apparent that there is much about the infamous German leader which he admires. Is he putting us on or are these comments actually his beliefs?

The second vignette, Shut Up and Dance, focuses on a young Rockette, who is speaking via phone with her mother after she has refused to perform with the troupe at the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States.

She’s depressed about her situation and her stalled career, something exacerbated by the appearance of two perky colleagues who act the roles of vapid cheerleaders. She seeks solace from her mother, a former Rockette herself, who may not offer words of comfort and may in fact be too focused on herself and her own needs and wants.

In Advantage God, a suburban couple blithely prattle on about the superficial events that fill the time in their handsome area of affluence when they’re interrupted by a booming voice from an unseen entity. It’s God calling and He isn’t happy at all, neither with the couple nor with humanity in general.

When the man and woman blather on about their prowess as doubles partners on the tennis court, they irk the Lord to the point that He challenges them to a match, teaming with a most surprising partner of His own. Who will win, and is there any ‘love’ involved?

The evening concludes with Hipster Noir, in which a gumshoe straight out of a 1940s film noir discusses one of his most perplexing cases. It involves a dame and a scam run by the leggy femme fatale and her nerdy partner.

The detective is confused by all their techno talk about ‘texts’ and ‘images’ on phones and whatnot. Unfazed, he fixes his steely gaze on the dubious strangers as he works the case from the joint where he dispenses cups of ‘joe’ while solving crimes.

Is he onto the tricks of this offbeat duo or is he yesterday’s news? Stay tuned.

Highlights: The first part of the 2018 LaBute New Theater Festival features a gem by LaBute himself as well as the varied efforts of three playwrights whose works were selected from more than 300 submissions late last year.

Other Info: LaBute himself was on hand at the opening-night performance to greet participants and audience members alike with STLAS artistic director William Roth. He also planned on attending the free performances of works by four high school playwrights at Gaslight Theater on Saturday morning.

LaBute’s contribution, The Fourth Reich, is the best of the initial quartet of the 2018 entries. It’s an insidious, disarming playlet which, in LaBute’s signature style, develops like a slowly blooming flower only to reveal a poisonous insect inside it.

Its effectiveness is heightened by Eric Dean White’s calculated portrayal of the sinister central character, who ingratiatingly observes that “you get to write history if you win,” with an omnipresent smile on his otherwise expressionless face.

White’s precise depiction shows how the man’s willing acceptance of venality is underscored when he chillingly shows us one of his prized possessions, a landscape painting, about which he says, “You can guess who painted this.”Under John Pierson’s carefully crafted direction, White sets off the 2018 LaBute New Theater Festival with a disarming bang.

James McLindon’s amusing paean to film noir benefits from the able presence of Reginald Pierre as the jut-jawed ‘dick’ in Hipster Noir, which cleverly blends the black-and-white justice of the gritty genre with an amusing dollop of a pair of dippy milennials.

Pierson directs this vignette with an eye on allowing McLindon’s amusing prose to dictate laughter while the playwright’s characters are presented in humorously stereotypical fashion. Pierre is especially entertaining, decked out in a skinny black tie, white shirt and black suit topped off with a no-nonsense fedora, courtesy of costume designer Megan Harshaw.

His glinty portrayal is offset by Carly Rosenbaum’s deadpan persona of the alluring woman in red and the goofy hijinks of her partner in crime, played glibly by Joshua Parrack. The double entendres are plentiful and the laughs abundant in this engaging homage to Hollywood’s underbelly.

Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich’s Shut Up and Dance has moments of surprising poignancy, blending a hellish view of contemporary politics with the familiar tussles between generations. Fine efforts by Erin Brewer, Margeau Steinau, Colleen Backer and Rosenbaum enhance this piece, which Wendy Greenwood directs with a nice and understanding touch.

Norman Kline’s Advantage God, for whatever reason, just didn’t resonate with me on opening night. Laughs seemed few and far between, although others in the audience saw much to amuse them. Pierson directed with a flair, allowing Backer and White to make the most of their inane, self-obsessed yesteryear yuppies, while Pierre lent his dulcet tones to a prickly, unseen God.

Patrick Huber designed the functional set, which is made to serve four different vignettes, lit by Huber and Dalton Robison. Jess Stamper adds several amusing props, including a classic black rotary phone for the detective, and the engaging sound design is the work of Pierson, Greenwood and Ryan Scott Foizey.

Set One of the LaBute New Theater Festival continues next weekend, followed by Set Two for the last two weeks in July. As usual, there’s something for everyone in this interesting hodgepodge of performances.

Play: LaBute New Theater Festival, Set One

Company: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle

Dates: July 12, 13, 14, 15

Tickets: $30-$35; contact 1-800-982-2787 or ticketmaster.com

Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of Patrick Huber

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