Story: The seventh annual LaBute New Theater Festival, hosted by St. Louis Actors’ Studio, opened last weekend at the Gaslight Theater for a month-long run. The first installment, running through July 14, features four different one-act plays, including one by festival namesake Neil LaBute.

Another four plays will follow in Set Two, which will be performed July 19-28, with LaBute’s effort part of that segment along with three other entries.

LaBute’s contribution, Great Negro Works of Art, premiered earlier this year at St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s New York City version of its festival. With a title as controversial as its author, the story delves into the first date of two young people who meet online.

Tom and Jerri rendezvous at an exhibit featuring pieces by African-American artists. It’s a mismatch from the start, as Tom, who is black, makes a joke about their names, referencing the famous animated cat and mouse, to which the white Jerri densely replies, “My name is spelled differently.”

Tom’s attempts to loosen up the conversation are met with awkward responses from Jerri, leading them both down a path of increasing tension over racial matters, some subtle and others less so.

Michael E. Long’s work, Color Timer, also features a first date between a man and a woman, this time at a nice restaurant. Aaron is a buttoned-down psychologist not given to frivolity, while Stacy makes odd and occasionally alarming comments that set off an alarm bell or two.

When she tells him that she has a revolver pointed at him under the table, Aaron's anxiety level is raised as he tries to get the attention of their waitress to divert the apparent psychopath’s plan.

In Joe Sutton’s drama, Privilege, a man named White is grilled mercilessly by a member of a law firm to which he is applying after passing the state bar exam. His father worked at the firm as well as his grandfather and uncles.

Now, however, Peter White finds that the rules have changed and that he’s under suspicion for any possible participation he may have had in the brutal beating of a gay man by his cousin many years earlier.

Carter W. Lewis’ comedy, Kim Jong Rosemary, focuses on the frustrations of a single mother whose anger, fears, doubts and other negative aspects all are bundled in a huge heap on her living room floor, a source of concern for her and her teen daughter. A woman who purports to be the author then addresses the audience, commenting on social issues of today and perhaps tomorrow.

Highlights: Controversial social issues and the menace of the unknown dominate the stage in these four smart but diverse one-act plays, each of which is designed to raise hackles in the audience as well as the characters.

Other Info: Sutton, whose play Voir Dire was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, leads the way in Set One of this year’s Labute New Theater Festival. His harrowing drama, Privilege, appears to be set in a dystopian world where protagonist Peter White is guilty until determined innocent.

His surname is no coincidence and the title’s reference only adds to Peter’s frustrations at being held accountable for the “sins of the fathers,” or in this case, the cousin’s. Spencer Sickmannn portrays Peter as a decent and honorable man, whose visit to the victim to understand what happened leads to an angry response by his uncle and another cousin named Amy.

Director Jenny Smith utilizes the stark lighting design by Patrick Huber and Tony Anselmo to ratchet up the tension factor with chilling results. There’s accomplished work by Chuck Brinkley as Peter’s gruff but careful uncle; Carly Rosenbaum as Peter’s bitter cousin, an attorney who has been denied employment at the firm; and by Shane Signorino as the haunted victim, now a man but carrying the scars of an unwarranted assault on him years before.

With Great Negro Works of Art, LaBute customarily offers a crisp one-act drama intended to provoke a response from his audience, incendiary of otherwise. Jaz Tucker is terrific as Tom, decked out in a Colin Kaepernick, black salute T-shirt courtesy of costume designer Megan Harshaw. His innocent attempts at striking up a conversation with his date crumble into some sticky dialogue with Jerri.

Rosenbaum raises a number of familiar flags as the “liberal” white woman, whose casual reaction to the artwork as well as topics such as “lawn jockeys” brought up by Tom result in a relationship which devolves from tentative to tempestuous. John Pierson’s direction is taut and brooding, abetted by Huber’s intentionally banal set design of a museum description board.

Long’s comic piece is a 21st century update of The Most Dangerous Game, with Colleen Backer at her maniacal best as the creepy Stacy. She says she’s a ‘color timer’ in a TV editing studio but just might also be a sadistic killer, revealing as much with ominous, furtive glances as with Long’s clever lines.

Signorino convincingly shows the angst and fear of potential victim Aaron, while Rachel Bailey adds to the surreal surroundings as an affable waitress who may unwittingly set off alarms. Director Smith maintains a smooth balance of subtle terror and comic possible misunderstandings all the way through the conclusion.

Lewis’ piece is an odd duck for sure, an exercise for the playwright to flex his writing muscles. Pierson’s direction allows his trio of players to immerse themselves in the bizarre commentary and actions, including Smith as the baffled mother, Eli Hurwitz as her supportive daughter and Backer as the curious, on-stage persona of the author himself, musing on sexual identity and the evolution of change in societies of all political stripes.

Set One of the LaBute New Theater Festival continues next weekend, followed by Set Two for the last two weeks in July.

Play: LaBute New Theater Festival, Set One

Company: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle

Dates: July 11, 12, 13, 14

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