Story: Last year, St. Louis Actors’ Studio introduced its LaBute New Theater Festival, a four-week offering of new, one-act plays receiving their world premieres at the Gaslight Theater. STLAS founding director William Roth and others at STLAS collaborated with noted playwright Neil LaBute, who agreed to lend his name to the festival and also to contribute an original work to the inaugural event.
The second part of the second annual LaBute New Theater Festival showcases three new works in addition to another LaBute original. The following review covers the three plays that opened July 27 as well as LaBute’s drama, which is being performed during all four weeks of the festival:
• Jack is nervously awaiting his blind date in Coffeehouse, Greenwich Village, a smart little comedy written by John Doble. When Pamela arrives, she quickly takes control of the encounter, leaving the flummoxed Jack back on his heels. Pamela capriciously sets arbitrary boundaries for their conversation, informing Jack what he may and may not ask.
As the two of them verbally dance around the awkwardness, a rude waiter bizarrely badgers Jack, seemingly holding him in contempt. So much so, it seems, that Pamela questions to what ends Jack might go to handle the effrontery.
• Susan Steadman’s drama, The Thing with Feathers, focuses on a man in a hospital who is recovering from wounds and bruises sustained in a barroom brawl. He’s shackled at the ankles and limited in his mobility, and in his boredom he strikes up a conversation with a young patient he sees walking the halls. She’s belligerent at first, but slowly a relationship develops between the erudite adult and his ‘clean slate’ of a student.
• Comback Special is a comedy by JJ Strong that asks the question, “What would happen if a young couple touring Graceland should suddenly come face to face with none other than Elvis himself?”
Jesse considers himself a musical purist, one not duped by a performer who, says Jesse, stole his ouvre from black musicians who preceded him and adapted those tunes for a white audience. His wife, Bonnie, though, sees Elvis as a song stylist and an artist in his own right. So, when they meet The King, or someone impersonating Elvis, in his bedroom in his famous Graceland mansion in Memphis, what exactly will happen?
• LaBute’s contribution to both parts of the festival is an intriguing drama titled Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush. Bill is eating his lunch while seated on a park bench when he is approached by a genial gent. The man says his name is Kip, and that he’s the husband and father of a young woman and her son whom Bill has befriended on their regular walks through the park.
Unfortunately for Bill, Kip has uncovered some startling information in Bill’s past. That history doesn’t sit well with Kip, who says he is bound and determined to protect his family from people like Bill, despite the latter’s vehement protestations and indignation.
Highlights: Based on the performance of all eight vignettes presented, the second annual LaBute New Play Festival has been a rousing success. With the namesake playwright in the audience on opening night of the festival’s second part, patrons were treated to some well written and interpreted pieces that have validated the countless hours devoted by the festival’s selection team to cull the best works from the hundreds of submissions they received.
Other Info: Both comedies in the second part of the festival offered high entertainment value. John Pierson’s incisive direction of Coffee House, Greenwich Village extracted delicious performances from all three of his players. Emily Schwetye brought mystery, power and persuasion as well as an alluring sexiness to Pamela.
Offsetting her confidence and cool casualness was Nathan Bush’s Jack, a nervous jumble of insecurity, amiability and earnestness easily thrown off by the whims of his beguiling blind date. Cereghino completed the trio with a daffy, quirky hostility that lends itself to Doble’s alarming but clever conclusion.
Pierson’s other directorial effort is less appealing, primarily because The Thing with Feathers is just a little too precious for drama and perhaps better suited to the printed page. Chopper Leifheit is effective as a genial, literary type who befriends and then tries to elevate the intellectual curiosity of a surly teen patient, played convincingly by Caroline Adams.
GP Hunsaker has a small role as the police officer assigned to watch Leifheit’s character, which is a bit of a stretch to begin with if the teacher’s story can be believed. In any event, it’s all a bit overly dramatic and tedious.
Strong’s Comeback Special is a hoot, allowing Leifheit as Elvis, Schwetye as Bonnie and Cereghino as Jesse to have their way with these wacky characters, especially Leifheit as The King. He mixes bravado with Elvis’ down-home friendliness and brings a sweet side to the role as well.
Cereghino could be a bit more expressive in his portrayal, but Schwetye’s Bonnie is a delight, blending a fan’s enthusiasm with a wife’s poignant love for her husband. Tom Martin directs with a pronounced touch for comedy.
LaBute’s contribution is a riveting little marvel, showing how the accomplished playwright can quickly develop a story that is tense and exhilarating. William Roth has never been better as the quiet, non-descript Bill, whose mood goes from pleasant to annoyed to frantic in a matter of several, well-modulated minutes under Milton Zoth’s persuasive direction.
Reginald Pierre, as the seemingly friendly Kip, continues to stack one impressive performance upon another. Oddly, though, his portrayal of Kip this time around is more emotional than his interpretation in Part I of the festival. The earlier approach seems the preferable one, when he coolly and convincingly portrayed a father who knows a predator when he sees one and clinically conveyed the lengths to which he’d go to keep that predator at bay.
With mostly delightful efforts and with fine direction, acting and production values, the second annual LaBute New Theater Festival has been a pronounced achievement for St. Louis Actors’ Studio.
Plays: LaBute New Theater Festival, Part II
Company: St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle
Dates: July 31, August 1, 2, 3
Tickets: $25-$30; contact 458-2978, 1-800-982-2787 or ticketmaster.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb