Transgression—social, sexual and otherwise—has been the bread
and butter of Neil LaBute’s career. It might be the downfall of it too. Last year, allegations about some unidentified misconduct caused theater organizations such as MCC
Theater, 59E59 Theaters and others to sever longstanding ties with him (click here to read more about that).
And so it’s hard to put all of that aside when
looking at this year’s iteration of the annual LaBute New Theater Festival, a
trio of one-acts that opened at the Davenport Theater this week. And I don’t think LaBute intended
us to. For these plays, metaphorical stations of the cross in public shaming, struck
me as his attempt to make us think about the way he believes he’s been treated.
The first and final pieces are character studies in which
one actor addresses the audience directly. Karl, the sole character in the
opening monologue The Fourth Reich,
matter-of-factly offers the argument that
the major reason Hitler has such a heinous reputation is because he lost the war,
leaving the people who defeated him to portray him as the epitome of evil.
This, of course, overlooks Hitler’s complicity in exterminating millions of innocent people. But that’s not the way Karl sees it. “You get to write the history when you win,” he says, noting that Ulysses S. Grant oversaw the genocide of Native Americans but is
nonetheless regarded as an American hero. “And what about me?,” Karl asks, no doubt channeling LaBute's own sentiments.
“Should I be tossed out in the garbage ‘cause
of one bad thing I did, years ago, when I was a kid?”
Katie, the young woman in the closing monologue Unlikely
wrestles with that question too. She confides that she’s mourning her
high-school boyfriend who was recently killed in a mass shooting. Her grief is mainly driven by her fear that dumping him 10 years ago set off a chain of events that landed
him in the place where the massacre occurred. Her guilt raises the butterfly-effect-like question of
whether one careless misdeed can lead to disastrous results.
These bookend reveries, the first directed by John Pierson
and the second by LaBute himself, are well performed by Eric Dean White and Gia
Crovatin but they’re slight works. And, if I’m going to be honest, they’re annoying
too, striking me as the kind of weaselly why-is-everybody-always-picking-on-me
or how-was-I-supposed-to-know-it-would-turn-out-like-that excuses kids give when
they don’t want to take responsibility for their own actions.
The middle play, a two-hander also directed by Pierson, is more
substantial than the other two but I winced when I first saw its title: Great Negro Works of Art.
It wasn’t just the anachronistic word but the fact that race is such a hot-wire
issue and I wasn’t sure how a provocateur like LaBute would handle it.
His approach here is to view racial dynamics and political correctness through the
prism of a first date between a white woman and a black man who’ve met on an
internet dating site. The woman Jerri, played with appropriate blind-date jitteriness
by Brenda Meaney, chose a museum showing the titular exhibit for their first
face-to-face encounter. The man Tom, a layered performance by Keilyn Durrel
Jones, arrives late bearing flowers and a tendency to hide behind humor when
Each is openly attracted to the other but their attempts at
small talk quickly dissolve into a debate over semantics (what does it mean to
lie) and sensibilities (should lawn jockeys be considered works of art or symbols
of oppression). They struggle to find common ground by telling one another that
people are too sensitive about subjects like gender and race and that everyone
should just say what they feel. But each time one of them tries to do that, the other
misinterprets what’s being said.
Presented separately, these three plays might seem no more
than routine additions to the LaBute canon of provocative characters and uneasy situations designed to throw viewers off balance. But taken
together, they add up to a declaration that truth is merely the property of
whoever is telling a tale. Which makes me sad because although I’m a
longtime LaBute fan, Hitler is Hitler and however you tell his story, millions of people died because of him.