Off-Broadway Review: “LaBute New Theater Festival 2017” at 59E59 Theaters

Off-Broadway Review: “LaBute New Theater Festival 2017” at 59E59 Theaters

David Roberts

OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic

If a single observation applies to the four plays in the 2017 “LaBute New Theater Festival” it is, there is nothing new here, nothing thought-provoking, nothing that raises rich enduring questions. And that is unfortunate given the status of the playwrights and the actors involved in this important Festival.

Kel Haney directs Neil LaBute’s “What Happens in Vegas” with efficiency. Patrick Huber’s hotel room set seems cramped in the small Theater C at 59E59 Theaters with the end of the large bed thrust just inches away from the first row of patrons who watch the nameless hooker “Her” (Clea Alsip) cavort with her young married client “Him” (Michael Hogan) and review the menu of services available for his further pleasure. These range from “General Horseplay” for twenty dollars to a “Dirty Sanchez” for one- hundred-fifty dollars. The language is unabashedly graphic throughout and it is difficult to know what the point of the play is. One wonders if the themes of infidelity, prevarication, and the employment of sex workers warrant the writing of a new play? If “What Happens in Vegas” is meant to be a trope for some larger purpose, the playwright has not made that “leap” apparent.

One would have to search hard to find any enduring questions raised in Adam Seidel’s ponderous and overlong “American Outlaws.” Mitch (Eric Dean White) is an accountant who launders money for “family” member Dominic Callabro and (believe it or not) asks Dominic to set up a meeting with his “specialist” Martin (Justin Ivan Brown) to arrange to murder Mitch’s wife Susan. Although the plot is predictable, it would not be fair to disclose the rising action, climax, falling action, and the resolution except to disclose that the reason Mitch wants to kill his wife is that she is having an affair with Martin. That “twist” is about as good as it gets. Director John Pierson directs this piece in a lugubrious fashion leaving the actors on their own depending on a large dose of mugging to substitute for character development and depth. “American Outlaws” is flat from beginning to end.

After an intermission, Michael Hogan returns to the stage to portray Jay McGibbons a John Kennedy Toole-like struggling writer who lives with his “frail” homebound mother (Donna Weinsting) and collects rejection notices from a multitude of prospective publishers. The son and mother are inextricably caught in a poisonous verbally abusive system. Why Jay doesn’t just leave is anybody’s guess. Apparently dramatic irony is the literary device operating here since only the audience must be aware of Mother’s manipulative nature. Believable? Self-destructive son? John Pierson fares better here: his direction is energetic and he keeps the action moving briskly. Mr. Hogan and Ms. Weinsting grapple with the script and do their best to make sense of its thin thematic core.

The final play Cary Pepper’s “Mark My Worms” (yes, it is all about misspelling) is perhaps the weakest of the four offerings in this year’s Festival. Mason (Eric Dean White) turns up in a rehearsal space for a cold reading of a little-known LaSalle Montclare play directed by John (Eric Dean White) and co-starring Gloria (Clea Alsip). When a playwright and/or director chooses to portray a theatre professional – in this case the director – with exaggerated gay stereotypes, it is difficult for this critic to even engage with the play. However, both Mr. Pepper and the play’s director Michael Hogan provide enough distraction to overshadow the stereotyping. The play itself, an exaggerated piece about theatre turning in upon itself and making fun of itself, seems pointless and the direction is plodding and lifeless. Mark my words.

LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL

The cast features Clea Alsip, Justin Ivan Brown, Michael Hogan, Donna Weinsting, and Eric Dean White.

The creative team includes Patrick Huber (set design), Jonathan Zelezniak (lighting design), Carla Evans (costume design), and sound design by the St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Seth Ward Pyatt is the production stage manager. Production photos by Carol Rosegg.

The “LaBute New Theater Festival” runs for a limited engagement through Sunday, February 5. The performance schedule is Tuesday – Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8:30 p.m.; Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.; and Sunday at 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Please note: there is no 7:30 p.m. performance on Sunday February 5. Tickets are $35.00 ($24.50 for 59E59 Members).  To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or go to www.59e59.org. Running time is 2 hours with a 10-minute intermission.

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