“Just Desserts”

Photo courtesy of St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Play:        “Just Desserts”

Group:        St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Venue:        Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle

Dates:        June 9, 10, 11, 12, 16, 17, 18, 19

Tickets:    From $20 to $25; contact 1-800-982-2787 or www.ticketmaster.com

Story:    Playwright Neil LaBute writes in the notes for this production that “Along with some new material that is debuting here tonight, these fragments of work have been performed in venues around the world but never before in this exciting combination.”

What transpires are six short one-act vignettes all more or less focused on the theme implied in the umbrella title.  All of them take place in a bar and each depicts people who, more or less, get what’s coming to them for their mean, ill-tempered, miserable, nasty ways.  Of course, they may step on other individuals along the way, or not have everything go exactly as they’d like, but odds are they won’t connect the dots.

Highlights:    One of the six skits, “Bad Girl,” is making its world premiere in this St. Louis Actors’ Studio presentation, which is a collaboration between LaBute and STLAS founder and producing director William Roth.  Each of the efforts carries the indelible LaBute imprimatur, well written but often misanthropic and mean-spirited.  Directors Milt Zoth and Kevin Beyer, however, bring together a talented cadre of performers who enliven each of these short works with humor or pathos.  Additionally, their pacing is sure and steady and the various skits flow effortlessly into the succeeding ones.

    The two most humorous vignettes start off the presentation in fine style.  “The New Testament” offers a peek at a bigoted writer, his diplomatic producer and a fiery young Asian-American actor who is initially miffed at being offered a role that is later retracted.  His early annoyance turns to indignation when the trash-talking playwright reveals his bountiful prejudices as well as a jaundiced view of show business.  While the deliveries of Christopher Hickey as the playwright, Robert A. Mitchell as the producer and Alan David as the actor are consistently amusing, this one-trick pony wears out long before its conclusion.

    “The Furies” features Emily Baker as a young woman named Paula who tells her dim-witted boyfriend (Chad Morris) that she has been diagnosed with a terminal disease and is moving to the West Coast for one last series of treatments.  Instead of concern and pity for her condition, he asks for proof of her condition primarily at the request of his omnipresent sister (Alyssa Ward).  Baker’s reactions to the other two are quirky and amusing while Morris is a stitch as the befuddled, addlebrained boyfriend. Ward is the very personification of scary as the sister who notches up her animosity a couple of levels, from whispers to her brother to save her damaged vocal cords to a nether-world bark as she shrilly shreds Paula with frightening savagery.

    The world premiere is a monologue titled “Bad Girl,” with Rachel Fenton ruminating about her promiscuous love life and its consequences.  It’s an empty existence, similar to characters in other LaBute plays, and what she says merits little consideration beyond its few short minutes of delivery, which Fenton handles capably enough.

    Roth has the other one-person skit, a sad little moment about a grown man who couldn’t control his emotions coaching kids in Little League baseball games and ended up being beaten to death by an irate parent.  His observations are delivered beyond the grave as a cautionary tale to the living.

    “Romance” features two ex-lovers confronting each other at the bar.  One seems cavalier and indifferent to the effect left on the other, while the second carries the emotional scars of their breakup and desperately attempts a reunion of sorts.  Hickey and James Slover portrayed the characters on the night I attended, with Hickey cool and convincing as the cad and Slover wearing his heart on his sleeve as the aggrieved party.  At alternating performances Belinda Quimby and Jackie Manker will join those two in various pairs acting out the skit.

    “Helter Skelter” is the last and best of the pieces, with Roth and Baker portraying a married couple who meet at the bar after the very pregnant woman spies her husband mysteriously leaving her sister’s house.  While Roth remains cruelly dispassionate as the philandering husband, Baker is a marvel as she slowly ratchets up her anger and pain until a chilling climax.

    Patrick Huber’s set design features a back-of-stage bar and a couple of tables with chairs up front where the action takes place, with the actors on stage throughout the performance to give the impression of a crowded night spot, and provides the lighting as well.  Jennifer Krajicek’s costumes match the various characters, most notably the wild attire of the silent sister in “The Furies,” the “Bad Girl” and the game-obsessed coach, while Zoth’s sound design is a handsome collection of “Music of Your Life” tunes from Paul Simon to The Police to REM.

    As the final capitulation to LaBute’s whims, who noted that “if I was directing, you probably wouldn’t even be getting that curtain call,” the performers simply fade away after the final vignette.  Too bad, because they richly deserved the applause directed to an empty stage.

Rating:    A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.