The LaBute New Theater Festival has become a summer tradition for St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Featuring a new play by celebrated playwright Neil LaBute as well as plays submitted by playwrights all over the world, the festival seems to get bigger and better every year. A total of ten plays have been selected this year, in addition to a special reading of scripts written by high school students. Of the main stage productions, they’re being presented in two consecutive engagements, with LaBute’s “Kandahar” being presented in both time slots. There’s a great variety of plays this year, ranging from comedies and dramas to thrillers and even science fiction. The second installment of this years festival is still running until this weekend. Here are some brief thoughts on all ten plays:
“Kandahar” by Neil LaBute (Presented in parts 1 and 2 of the Festival)
This riveting short play, by the festival’s namesake playwright, is the centerpiece of this year’s collection, as well as its highlight. It’s basically an extended monologue, although it builds drama and tension very well, presenting a difficult character and situation in a fascinating, if disturbing, manner. Michael Hogan gives an intense performance as an unnamed soldier recently returned from Afghanistan. He recounts a violent event that’s just taken place with an unapologetic and chilling tone. LaBute manages to examine the brutality of war as well as exploring what makes a killer, both before and after war. This is play a that gains power on seeing it the second time. It’s not easy to watch, but it’s profoundly memorable.
Part 1 (July 10-19)
“Custom” by Mark Young
This is an intriguing drama about a young man, Robert (Nathan Bush), who walks into a custom jeweler’s shop ostensibly to try to sell some jewelry. The jeweler (GP Hunsaker) has strong opinions about what kind of jewelry he buys, and makes. As the conversation evolves, it becomes clear that Robert has ulterior motives, and the jeweler has a secret. While I managed to guess the “twist” about halfway through the production, this is a compelling piece, exploring relationships between people as well as an artists’ relationship with his art. The performances were engaging and believable, as well.
“A Taste of Heaven” by Chris Holbrook
In the festival’s sole venture into science fiction, this play has an interesting concept that’s somewhat overdone, and an ending that’s distinctly underdone. There are some fine performances, but the story isn’t particularly convincing. It concerns a woman (Nancy Crouse), who walks into what appears to be some sort of government agency to talk to an administrative representative (Kevin Minor) about her health benefits. Apparently, they’ve been terminated because the government thinks she’s dead. This starts an increasingly absurd chain of events that leads to a “surprise” development involving another agency employee (Rhyan Robinson) and the nature of the agency itself, and the woman’s request. It’s a twist that’s too little, too late.
“Cold In Hand” by Steve Apostolina
The story of a developing friendship between an elderly, blind African-American man and a young, white street musician, this play is distinguished by fine performances by its two actors, Don McClendon as the older Razz, and Rynier Gaffney as young Luke. The two bond over blues music, and Gaffney plays it well on his guitar. The exploration of an unlikely relationship between people of different ages and backgrounds is an intriguing concept, and the performances make it even more so. It’s a strong script with an even stronger cast.
“Stand Up for Onseelf “by Lexi Wolfe
Nathan Bush, Alicia Smith
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Aside from “Kandahar”, this was my favorite production of the festival’s first wave. It’s something of an offbeat, UK-set romance, as the outgoing young Lila (Alicia Smith) meets the more standoffish, older Lucas (Nathan Bush) at a party. While the possibilities of a romantic encounter are discussed, we learn a lot more about both of these individuals and what draws them together. There’s much more than initially meets the eye, and both performers give convincing portrayals and display a strong sense of chemistry. This is a thoroughly engrossing story, with a sweet conclusion.
“A Stranger Here Myself” by Rich Orloff
This is something of an oddity–probably the least raunchy sex-comedy I’ve heard of. It follows a stressed-out business woman, Patricia (Jenny Smith) in a hotel room on the eve of an important presentation. When various methods of getting to sleep don’t work, she decides to relieve the tension through an elaborate fantasy that takes on a life of its own, involving a hunky movie star (Paul Cereghino), her ex-husband (Don McClendon), and her adventurous next-door neigbhor (Stephanie Benware). It’s a funny little play with some excellent comic timing, deciding to major on the absurdity of the fantasy to hilarious effect.
Part 2 (July 24–August 2)
“Homebody” by Gabe McKinley
Michael Hogan, Donna Weinsting
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Overall, I think part 2 of the festival is generally stronger than part 1, and this dark, somewhat disturbing play is a highlight. It explores the relationship between a dejected aspiring novelist, Jay (Michael Hogan), and his manipulatiive and apparently invalid mother (Donna Weinsting). The performances here are extremely strong, and the script is excellent. Hogan and Weinsting have a believably combative relationship, and the plot developments are both gripping and surprising. It’s a sharp, incisive play that deals not only with a dysfunctional mother-son relationship, but also deals with issues of commercialism in the publishing industry, integrity and identity in writing, and the lengths to which one might go in order to succeed. Just when I thought I knew where this story was going, the playwright turned the tables, and it’s all as utterly convincing as it is unsettling.
“Pitch” by Theresa Masters & Marc Pruter
This is a sweet little comedy about two long-time friends who collaborate in writing television scripts. When Matt (Paul Cereghino) suggests to Trina (Stephanie Benware) that they stray from their usual subject matter of fantasy scripts and try a romantic comedy, she’s skeptical at first. Then, the story starts taking shape in ways that oddly reflect on the writers’ lives. It’s a cute concept and very well acted by both performers, although the ending isn’t particularly convincing. The interactions between Trina and Matt are compelling to watch, for the most part.
“Deirdre Dear” by Norman Young
This play has its moments, but seems unfinished. It tells the story of Deirdre (Jenny Smith), a once-famous actress who has taken time off to raise her daughter, Bobbi (Maya Dickinson), but now wants to get back into the business. Bobbi is helping Deirdre run her lines for an audition when they run into the younger, more recently successful Bea (Alcia Smith), who is auditioning for the same role. The play also features Ryan Robinson and Stephanie Benware. This is a play that tells an interesting story, showing the fickleness of show business and the difficulties of being an aging performer in such a world. There are some good moments in this production, and the actors all do a fine job, although it runs out of steam near the end, and the ending is abrupt and confusing.
“There You Are” by Fran Dorf
Jenny Smith, B. Weller
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
The second installment of the festival ends with one of its strongest entries. Featuring an excellent script, well-drawn characters and two top-notch performances, “There You Are” presents two interesting and likable characters in a thoroughly believable but unsettling situation. Two married (not to each other) writers, the more established George (B. Weller) and aspiring first-time novelist Jesse (Jenny Smith) have met at a writers’ workshop and have quickly developed a strong friendship with more than a little bit of a flirtatious tone. These two are clearly drawn to one another, and the sense of temptation is clear throughout the production as George and Jesse share their love of writing and profound connection with one another. The “will they or won’t they” is always there in the background, and for once, the eventual conclusion is both plausible and true to the characters. It’s anchored by two very strong characterizations from Weller and Smith. Along with “Kandahar”, “Stand Up For Oneself,” and “Homebody”, this is one of my favorite productions of this year’s festival.