Neil LaBute burst upon the New York theater scene 20 years ago with Bash, a trio of one-act plays. It is a form he frequently returns to, and for the fourth year in a row he is represented by an evening of three one-acts under the umbrella title, LaBute New Theater Festival. Anyone familiar with the playwright’s work knows that his plays often attempt to shock—or at the very least agitate—his audiences with provocative, you-can’t-say-that-in-public pronouncements and confessions. Seemingly ordinary and recognizable individuals give voice to amoral and dark thoughts, and a successful LaBute play prompts a fair amount of uncomfortable laughter and occasional squirming in one’s seat. Fans of LaBute will be happy to know that the latest offerings contain their share of unease, and they unsettle with needling provocations around politics, race, and personal relationships.
The first play, The Fourth Reich, directed by John Pierson, is a monologue delivered by a character named Karl (Eric Dean White), who has an affinity for Adolf Hitler. People tend to put too much emphasis on the deaths of the 6 million Jews, or “the Jew thing,” as Karl calls it, and overlook the fact that Hitler was a man of action, vision, and not inconsiderable artistic talent. After all, history is told by the victors, the gregarious host explains, and one’s perspective might be very different if Hitler had not made a catastrophic blunder with Russia. And if Americans try to claim the moral high ground, they should not forget the United States’ own shameful history: Ulysses S. Grant, one of the architects of Native American genocide, is regarded as a national hero.
In true LaBute style, the message is reprehensible, but the character’s composure and affable presence, beautifully modulated in White’s insinuating performance, make the audience lean in to listen. It is easy to shut out the raving of a lunatic white supremacist, but discussions of the utopian possibilities evident in a landscape painting can be simultaneously intellectually seductive and emotionally unnerving.
Great Negro Works of Art, the second play on the bill, also directed by Pierson, introduces a couple on a blind date in a museum exhibit. There is the usual awkwardness of the first meeting and the fumbling to find the right words while playing the mating game, but language proves to be a trap and leads to the couple’s eventual undoing. Jerri (a delightfully dippy and haughty Brenda Meaney), a white woman in her thirties, prides herself on her honesty and forthrightness. Tom (a suitably pent-up KeiLyn Durrel Jones), an African-American man also in his thirties, is accommodating and diffident even as Jerri makes racial gaffes, such as referring to “black artists of color.”
Tom points to the extreme political correctness that has presumably destroyed meaningful conversation between people of different races. He says, “It’s gotten ridiculous...every phrase is so loaded, it’s become perilous, just trying to have a conversation today...and not just men and women...everybody.” By the end of the play, slips of the tongue and casual remarks expose the rifts in a lifetime of carefully guarded bias. Meany and Jones are perfectly matched as the pair square off in the racially fraught art exhibit, and power and control keep shifting.
The final play of the evening, Unlikely Japan, directed by LaBute, explores the effects of guilt and remorse in the aftermath of a national tragedy. Gia Crovatin offers a moving performance as Katie, whose ex-boyfriend Tim was a victim in the Las Vegas shooting. In the monologue, Katie describes an incident of nonchalant and unpardonable cruelty, and she has to live with the what-ifs: Would her life and Tim’s be forever defined by the acts of a mass shooter if she had done things differently?
The plays include simple but effective design by Patrick Huber (sets), Jonathan Zelezniak (lighting), and Megan Harshaw (costumes). The minimalist approach is fitting for this trio of one-acts. LaBute has a knack for encapsulating big ideas in pocket-size plays.
The LaBute New Theater Festival plays through Jan. 27 at the Davenport Theatre (354 West 45th St.). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $47–$57 and may be purchased by calling (212) 239-6200 or visiting Telecharge.com.