Story: In 2012 St. Louis Actors’ Studio founding director William Roth announced the premiere of the LaBute New Theater Festival in July 2013. Noted playwright Neil LaBute, whose works have been nominated for both Tony Awards and Olivier Awards, agreed to participate in the festival, both as part of the creative team and also as a contributing playwright.
LaBute’s one-act work, The Possible, is receiving its world premiere at the Gaslight Theater, the only one of nine new plays to be performed during all four weeks of the festival. Scripts by Rachel Fenton, Daniel Damiano, Joshua Thomas and Peter Grandbois and Nancy Bell are being presented in Part II of the festival.
In The Possible, two young women meet at one’s apartment with dual purposes. Woman #1 is there to give an earful to Woman #2, who seduced the former’s boyfriend. Woman #1 is taken aback, though, by the reaction of her counterpart, who calmly states that she bedded her friend’s lover only to get him “out of the way” in her pursuit of Woman #1.
Seems that Woman #2 was smitten immediately by her adversary when they met briefly at a party a year or so earlier. This only further angers Woman #1, who resents that her boyfriend has been used and wasted, since she tells Woman #2 she has absolutely no homosexual desire for her, and never has.
Woman #2 coolly listens to the rants and ravings, which seem to be less than whole-hearted refutations. The longer that Woman #1 remains in the apartment, the more one can sense where the conclusion will take these two characters.
Rachel Fenton’s drama, Blood Brothers, opens with a young man bound and gagged, being held captive by a lonely park ranger named Hank. The latter’s shabby room includes a shrine of sorts to his prisoner, who stars in a TV series titled Blood Brothers that Hank watches faithfully. Trouble is, Hank takes the show much more seriously than does the actor, whose terror about his situation eventually gives way to cynicism and sarcasm that may prove harmful to his health, given Hank’s unsteady psyche.
Daniel Damiano’s Cut is a terse, two-character study of a ‘lifer’ in a penitentiary who dispenses advice while handling chores in the prison barber shop. Jerry has sacrificed everything he held dear in the outside world in the 30 years he has spent behind bars, and he warns the younger Raymond to take steps not to end up like him. Is Raymond smart enough to pay attention?
In Kink, by Joshua Thomas, a couple gets together to experiment with a variety of sexual escapades recommended in one of their favorite books. Francesca seems to be a bit more spirited in her pursuit than does Simon, or maybe he’s just a bit clumsier on the uptake. Can they exceed their expectations in satisfying themselves and each other with their increasingly erotic albeit awkward behavior?
Present Tense, written by Nancy Bell and Peter Grandbois, examines the intense relationship between Walter and Debra. He’s married and has a family and so does she. They met at a convention and now find themselves obsessed with each other. They’ve exchanged passionate notes via phone texting and e-mails, and they count the days until they can be together again. When the opportunity finally presents itself, though, Debra and Walter react in a most unsettling fashion.
As with the first part of the month-long LaBute New Theater Festival, the second part of this ambitious program features some strong writing and several compelling performances offset by a weak link. In this case, the frantic comedy Kink seems to run out of steam as its one-joke premise grows wearisome after a while. In truth, though, the women seated on either side of me on opening night laughed often and heartily at Thomas’ intrepid characters.
He’s a savvy actor who’s also proven himself adept at clever scripts, such as the amusing one-man story about a frustrated God, Let There Be Thistles. Director Milton Zoth does elicit a pair of accomplished performances by Laura Sexauer as the frenzied feminine half of this adventurous duo and Nathan Bush as her over-matched partner.
David Wassilak does double duty on the bill in two very different portrayals. Director Wayne Salomon carefully guides Wassilak as the psychologically tormented Hank and Paul Cooper as his unwilling guest in Blood Brothers. They’re cramped into a dreary set evocatively and depressingly furnished by Jim Burwinkel that is dominated by a wall of press clippings about Hank’s favorite television series at one end and a minuscule TV set at the other.
Wassilak is eerily subdued as the kidnapper, even admitting at one point that he has no plan for a ‘ransom’ of any sort, but can quickly erupt with terror when Hank perceives that his victim is laughing at him. Cooper effectively makes the transition from victim to manipulator as the plot unfolds, and the climax may surprise you.
Conversely, Wassilak is cool and controlled in Cut as the penal philosopher, Jerry, offering a study in contrast to Tom Lehmann’s younger and brasher convict, Raymond. Director Steve Woolf brings out the irony in Damiano’s script by allowing his two crafty performers to shape their roles like a musical duo who complement each other’s strengths, down to the bittersweet denouement.
The evening’s best work, though, is reserved until the finale. In Present Tense, Aaron Orion Baker and Rachel Fenton hauntingly capture the lack of direct communication that strangles the relationship of Walter and Debra, two lonely hearts who cannot escape their self-confinement as they retreat into their phones and computers and away from direct connection. Salomon’s direction is tightly focused, his performers are chillingly committed to their misfit roles and the climax offered by Bell and Grandbois leaves considerable room for contemplation.
Surprisingly, a return visit to LaBute’s own work, The Possible, is less satisfying the second time around. While Wendy Renee Greenwood and Fenton are as effective as before, the script seems less intriguing than upon initial reflection.
Burwinkel adds the lighting design, props are furnished by Lisa Beke, Carla Landis Evans designed costumes and Robin Weatherall is sound designer.
Short and incisive for the most part, these are works that showcase the talents of several gifted artists, many of them local. You won’t be disappointed by checking out the second half of St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s inaugural and engaging LaBute New Theater Festival.
Plays: LaBute New Theater Festival, Part II
Company: St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle
Dates: July 25, 26, 27, 28
Tickets: $25-$30; contact 458-2978, 1-800-982-2787 or ticketmaster.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb