‘LaBute New Theater Festival’ Review: It’s Neil LaBute in a Minor Key | Modern Society of USA

‘LaBute New Theater Festival’ Review: It’s Neil LaBute in a Minor Key

‘LaBute New Theater Festival’ Review: It’s Neil LaBute in a Minor Key

Neil LaBute has long been accused of being a meanspirited nihilist who does not like his characters. Yet for the past 15 years or so, reviews have been pointing out that he’s softened up — by now his reputation is more fearsome than his actual shows.

Besides, those doing the disliking are Mr. LaBute’s characters, not him. Much of his work is about the power struggles between people who try to camouflage their mutual antipathy under the veneer of social graces. Inevitably, that veneer cracks.

And so it does in “Great Negro Works of Art,” the centerpiece of the three 30-minute plays that make up the “LaBute New Theater Festival,” a new anthology presented by the St. Louis Actors’ Studio at the Davenport Theater. (This is Mr. LaBute’s first major New York production — albeit a soft re-entry — since MCC Theater announced last February that it was terminating both their forthcoming collaboration and his position as playwright-in-residence, abruptly ending an association that had generated 10 shows, including “Fat Pig” and “Reasons to Be Pretty.”)

A two-hander sandwiched by a pair of solo pieces, “Great Negro Works of Art” is an ur-LaButian text, starting with a title that should inspire an anticipatory wince, but vague enough to make it difficult to pinpoint the issue.

After connecting online, Tom (KeiLyn Durrel Jones) and Jerri (Brenda Meaney) are meeting in real life for the first time at the titular museum exhibit. Jerri is white and Tom is black — it should not matter that he is light-skinned, but here it does.

Jerri toggles between dumb faux pas and haughty justifications. Tom starts by passive-aggressively nettling her — he then tries to deflate the tension by pretending he was just kidding — before revealing his irritation at Jerri’s ignorance. That he’s also handsy with her does not help his case.

Anybody with the remotest knowledge of Mr. LaBute’s M.O. knows that the encounter will not go well. Mr. LaBute’s writing is as skillful as ever, but Tom and Jerri’s date spins into a predictable downward spiral.

Directed, like “Great Negro Works,” by John Pierson, “The Fourth Reich” is a monologue by an amiable middle-aged man (Eric Dean White). He begins by suggesting that the one reason Hitler is “one of the most maligned people in the history of the world” is that he lost the war. “The man is dead,” our narrator says, “he paid for his sins, but he had some interesting things to say, along the way.”

It’s unclear what Mr. LaBute is trying to say, save for the obvious points that Nazi apologists don’t necessarily look like the notorious white supremacist Richard Spencer and that soft-spoken, self-serving sophistry is a dangerous quality.

The evening concludes with another solo, this time directed by Mr. LaBute himself. In “Unlikely Japan,” a young bank manager (Gia Crovatin) revisits past decisions, prompted by the death of a former high school boyfriend in a mass shooting. She wonders if the turning point was the time she stood him up at the airport before a trip to Japan. What would her life be like if she’d accompanied him? What about his?

She runs what-if scenarios, only to reach a numbing conclusion: We are, she says, “stumbling forward through our lives, trying our best, sometimes failing, sometimes not, until we reach the end of it all — the very bitter end.”

This resignation makes a more lasting impression than anger. Mr. LaBute may be mellower, but that does not make him any more uplifting.

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