The LaBute New Theater Festival is one of the rare times that one-acts get center stage (along with Author Directing Author, playwright Neil LaBute’s annual presentation of one-acts by him and Italian playwright Marco Calvani). The current trio of offerings provide two very strong entries and one, unfortunately, that isn’t. It’s the short-form champion’s own curtain-raiser that is the disappointment.
Hate Crime, like the other plays, takes place in a bedroom—in this first rendition, by designer Patrick Huber, it’s a hotel room with functional furniture and a saffron bedspread. A glowering Chauncy Thomas (identified only as Man 2) sits in a white terrycloth robe, and it’s clear he’s fuming when he has to get up to let in Spencer Sickmann’s more tentative Man 1.
LaBute’s set-up—the two are gay lovers plotting a murder—promises to play to his strengths: sensationalism, moral bankruptcy, and a power struggle with the threat of violence. Man 1 has forgotten his room key, and Man 2 berates him vehemently. But only minutes later Thomas’s detail-obsessed character is explaining how he plans to eliminate the victim—an older gay man whom Sickmann’s character is about to marry. It’s two days before the wedding/killing, and only now, it seems, this alpha male is working through crucial elements?
Man 1: You decide how you’re gonna do it yet? …
Man 2: Just beat him, I think…. It’s probably the easiest.… In a hate crime … a lot of times it’s a beating.
Where is this uncertain, last-minute planner coming from? It’s not the man who demanded that his partner-in-crime know instantly where his keycard is, and fulminated over all the dangers lurking from sloppy behavior. It’s a serious malfunction that suggests director John Pierson hasn’t worked out the kinks with the author.
The gay characters also don’t want to touch because Man 1, in a smart twist that belies Sickmann’s general milquetoast demeanor, stands firm that the victim will pick up the scent of Man 2 if they have sex—although, unless he’s marrying a St. Bernard, it’s hard to conceive the scent of a mere kiss from freshly showered Man 2 will be passed on. It’s true that a kiss could lead to sweatier things, but the actors have no chemistry, so that any sense of roiling passion being restrained just doesn’t seem credible.
By contrast, the second play, Winter Break by James Haigney, benefits from a forceful dose of realism. A young college student, Joanna (Kelly Schaschl), who has renamed herself Aisha, is leaving for Turkey to study with a Sufi mystic: she is a recent convert to Islam. Her frantic mother, Kitty (Autumn Dornfeld), tries to dissuade her, using logic (“You don’t even speak Turkish. You’re studying economics with a minor in Chinese”) and emotion (“…Your father in there watching TV is your meaning. The brother you fight with. … Not some college dorm blah, blah fad.”) The performers are passionate—Sickmann reappears during the argument as a very different gay character, a determined brother deeply distraught by the thought of losing his sister—and the dialogue is painfully real, although the Episcopal religion comes in for facile condescension. Haigney ends strongly, with arguments by the rational daughter and the distraught mother lucidly staked out and the audience wondering which side to believe.
Intermission separates the first plays from the third, Carter W. Lewis’s Percentage America, giving the audience a mental palate-cleansing for a piece that’s different in tone and ambition. Lewis has written a satire set in contemporary, Internet-influenced America. Thomas plays Andrew, and Dornfeld is Arial, both natives of Washington, D.C., who meet on a blind date via the web; each discovers the other has lied substantially, but they find common ground in the era of fake news after Arial explains her method of stripping away opinion from reported stories to end up with something closer to the facts. “They say the truth is only the truth till the president wakes back up,” says Andrew, impressed, so there’s no doubt when the play takes place.
As an exercise in whether they are really compatible, Arial and Andrew choose a hot news story, view all the reports of it, and do their own legwork as citizen reporters to determine its accuracy. The story is about a young woman who entered the Rose Garden and was arrested after launching into a diatribe—but one that tapes have not captured audibly. As Arial and Andrew delve into the truth, they become closer as a team, and Schaschl appears occasionally as various newscasters on a spectrum of networks: “the girl” becomes “the young whore” in reportage with a rightward bias. But suddenly the intruder is reported dead, and the menace of the times looms large. Lewis ends the play smartly and inventively, as Arial and Andrew arrive at the unsettling truth.
The LaBute New Theater Festival plays through Feb. 4 at 59E59 Theaters, (59 E, 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit 59e59.org.