Monday, January 15, 2018

THE 2018 LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL

L-R: Kelly Schaschl and Autumn Dornfeld in WINTER BREAK, part of THE 2018 LABUTE THEATER FESTIVAL.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
This year’s LaBute New Theater Festival at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan consists of three one act plays: Hate Crime by Neil LaBute, Winter Break by James Haigney and Percentage America by Carter W. Lewis.  Of the three, Haigney’s Winter Break stands head and shoulders above the other two: it is a brilliantly scripted exposition of the disconnect that exists between those who view the worldwide Islamic movement as nothing worse than a long overdue counterbalancing corrective to the flaws and excesses inherent in Western Civilization’s focus on the rights of the individual, the Judeo-Christian tradition, capitalism and other free market democratic principles (or at the very least nothing more than a movement predicated on Shariah-based moral principles fully as deserving of respect as our own more secular-oriented ethos), and those who perceive in the Islamic movement the gravest threat confronting our world since the rise of fascism and Nazism in the1930s and 1040s.

L-R: Kelly Schaschl and Spencer Sickmann in WINTER BREAK, part of THE 2018 LABUTE THEATER FESTIVAL.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Joanna Khouri (Kelly Schaschl), a 21-year old student raised in suburbia as an Episcopalian, has converted to Islam (changing her name to Aisha in the process) and is planning to travel to Turkey to live and study with the Sufis for two-and-a-half weeks during her school’s winter break.  Her mother, Kitty (Autumn Dornfeld) (who wouldn’t know a Sunni from a Sufi) is understandably distraught by this turn of events and Joanna’s brother, Bailey (Spencer Sickmann), a graduate student in sociology who fancies himself something of an expert on cultures other than his own, is convinced that if his kid sister follows through on her plans she will be decapitated in the Middle East or be brainwashed into returning to the United States as a terrorist.  Haigney has done a superb job in depicting the alternative realities perceived by the three Khouris and Schaschl, Dornfeld and Sickmann are terrific at conveying their distinctively differing emotional states. 

L-R: Chauncy Thomas and Spencer Sickmann in HATE CRIME, part of THE 2018 LABUTE THEATER FESTIVAL.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Neil LaBute’s Hate Crime, on the other hand, was disappointing.  Indeed, I don’t think it was a fully developed play at all but little more than an idea for one which was never brought to fruition.  A rather submissive young gay man (Spencer Sickmann) is about to marry his older partner but, before the marriage is consummated, he falls in love with a tough alpha-male gay man (Chauncy Thomas).  The two new partners plot to kill the older gay man on the day of the wedding and to make the murder look like a hate crime.  And that’s it.  We have no idea what subsequently happens and, frankly, the set-up required so great a suspension of disbelief that I didn’t much care.  LaBute is, of course, a master of language and dialog and so, unsurprisingly, there are occasional moments of sharp wit and humor even in this theatrical fragment (I hesitate to refer to it as a one act play).  And both Thomas and Sickmann play their roles with gusto.  But it’s just not enough.

L-R: Autumn Dornfeld and Chauncy Thomas in PERCENTAGE AMERICA, part of THE 2018 LABUTE THEATER FESTIVAL.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The third play, Percentage America by Carter W. Lewis, is based on a very clever series of conceits: (1) that we all lie in our personal relationships (about our ages, our residences, our educational attainments, our occupations, our families, and on and on; (2) that these lies segue into our acceptance of lies on a grander scale in the form of “fake news” and “alternative facts” in political, national and world affairs; and (3) that stripping away all the lies and spin to arrive at the kernel of “truth” in what we are told is the greatest erotic turn-on of all.  Arial (Autumn Dornfeld) and Andrew (Chauncy Thomas) are on a first date (perhaps resulting from an internet connection), finishing off pizza and wine in Arial’s apartment.  They’ve succeeded in good-naturedly stripping away one another’s self-aggrandizing self-descriptions as if it is a sort of foreplay before they get down to the serious stuff of stripping the world at large of its dishonesty.  Both Dornfeld and Thomas are passionate actors and they play their roles for all they’re worth but it doesn’t quite work.  I think the play has great promise but it’s not there yet and could use another couple of workshops.

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