|L-R: Michael Hogan and Clea Alsip in WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS, part of LaBUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL|
As a great fan of Neil LaBute, I eagerly anticipated attending a performance of his latest one act play, What Happens in Vegas, currently enjoying its world premier at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan as part of this year’s LaBute New Theater Festival. Unfortunately, I was to be sadly disappointed. Not that this latest two-hander by LaBute doesn’t exhibit the same sort of sharp dialogue and clever character juxtapositions that exemplify his other plays for it certainly does. Nor is it the fault of the two fine actors, Clea Alsip and Michael Hogan, whose portrayals of a sexy call girl and her cost-conscious client are spot on. No, it is simply that What Happens in Vegas never comes across as a fully fleshed out play – not even a short one-act one – but rather as little more than a classroom exercise in playwriting. To be sure, What Happens in Vegas is an occasionally mildly erotic and amusing riff on the encounter between that hot Las Vegas hooker and that married salesman on a tight budget, enabling LaBute to express at least a smidgen of his considerable literary talent, but it never amounts to very much more than that.
The remainder of the evening’s program consists of three other one act plays – Homebody by Gabe McKinley, American Outlaws by Adam Seidel, and Mark My Worms by Cary Pepper – all of which are currently enjoying their New York premieres (after having received their world premieres at past LaBute New Theater Festivals at St.Louis Actors’ Studio’s Gaslight Theater in prior years). But again, despite some excellent performances, none of those three really grabbed me either.
Homebody is a disturbingly macabre tale of a dysfunctional twosome – Jay (Michael Hogan), an unsuccessful aspiring novelist in his late 30’s, and his mother (Donna Weinsting), with whom he is living. The play reminded me of the work of Martin McDonagh whose The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore took Broadway by storm more than a decade ago. But much as I could appreciate McDonagh’s playwriting talents, I found both The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore to be so fundamentally distasteful that I regretted having seen them both. My reaction to Homebody is similar: admittedly it is a well-written and professionally performed work but I found it to be so distasteful that I just didn’t like it. But if you’re a fan of McDonagh, you might very well enjoy it much more than I did.
American Outlaws is yet another two hander in which Mitch (Eric Dean White), a mild-mannered cuckolded accountant attempts to hire a hit man, Mike (Justin Ivan Brown), to kill his wife. The relationship between Mitch and Mike turns out to be much more complicated than we might have imagined at first blush but making sense of it all required a greater suspension of disbelief than I thought the play was worth. The play ends not with a whimper but with a bang but is sufficiently incoherent that I couldn’t really be sure who was banging whom (at least I didn’t have that problem in LaBute’s play).
Which brings us to the final play on the program – Mark My Worms – in which Mason (Eric Dean White) and Gloria (Clea Alsip) have been cast in a newly-discovered play by the renowned absurdist, La Salle Montclare. The play is to be directed by John (Justin Ivan Brown) but the catch is that Montclare’s estate insists that the play be performed exactly as Montclare wrote it – typos and all - and Montclare was a terrible typist. So when the play opens, for example, with Mason holding Gloria at gunpoint and saying, as per the script, “I’ve got a bun!,” when it should be apparent to anyone with a modicum of common sense that what he actually meant to type was “I’ve got a gun!,” Mason still is required to say “I’ve got a bun!,” rather than “I’ve got a gun!” And when the script goes on to have Mason saying “Come out or I’ll…hoot,” when Montclare obviously meant to say “Come out or I’ll shoot,” Mason is still required to express the absurd statement as written rather than what would actually make sense. In a way it gives a whole new meaning to the term “theatre of the absurd.”
Gloria, however, does attempt to make sense out of it all and does so in an even more absurd manner. She discovers a Ph.D. thesis written on Montclare by one Thorndike Farrington which attempts to explain Montclare’s obvious typos as intentionally distorted food references and, with the utmost pretension, she contends that Montclare “loved food as much as he hated violence…He thought food was the answer to all our problems…What he’s saying here is that you, the instrument of violence, should be wielding a bun. Because if everyone who resorts to force did that, all violence would end.” And in further reliance on Farrington’s thesis, Gloria goes on to cite him as saying that “Montclare’s unique dialogue should not be viewed within the framework of the traditional communications paradigm” and that the “transmutation of preconception is sublime subordination” - whatever any of that might mean.
It all reminds me, in its puncturing of academic pretension and pomposity, of the so-called “Sokal Hoax,” perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor, two decades ago in which Sokal submitted an article entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies, in which he proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic concept. The editors of that supposedly scholarly journal actually published the article and, on the day it was published, Sokal revealed that the article was a hoax, describing it as “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense…structured around the silliest quotations…about mathematics and physics.”
It reminds me, too, of the very funny scene in the Woody Allen movie, Take the Money and Run, in which Virgil, a would-be bank robber, hands a note to a bank teller on which is written “I have a gun” – except that Virgil’s handwriting is so bad that the bank teller can’t decide whether it says “I have a gun” or “I have a gub.” The point of all this being that while Mark My Worms is predicated on an amusing conceit, it’s been done before and, to my mind, not only more effectively (in the Sokal Hoax) but also more entertainingly (in Take the Money and Run).