The 2018 LaBute Festival Is Off to an Uneven Start

Erin Brewer (center) is a woman haunted by "might-have-beens" in "Shut Up and Dance."
Erin Brewer (center) is a woman haunted by "might-have-beens" in "Shut Up and Dance."

After five successful years of the LaBute New Theater Festival, St. Louis knows what to expect: a half-dozen new short plays from emerging and established playwrights, plus one from the fest's namesake, presented by a "house company" in two separate programs. LaBute's contribution is part of both.

But this year provides something new: St. Louis Actors' Studio artistic director William Roth's pre-show remarks note that some of these plays are "works in progress." I don't recall similar warnings in previous years, and hearing that on opening night felt like a reminder to not judge a draft on the same curve as a finished piece. Unfortunately, the strange opening proved a necessary one; some plays definitely did not feel like complete thoughts.

LaBute's "The Fourth Reich" opens the show with a chill and a shudder. A man (Eric Dean White) dressed in tan and beige sits in a comfy chair and delivers a well-polished series of statements about Hitler. He willingly concedes that Hitler lost the war because "he made some mistakes," but takes mild umbrage that now he's "the most maligned man in history." White delivers these thoughts with a friendly smile and calm voice, reminding us of Hitler's pre-war accomplishments and all he did for Germany.

It's an insidious monologue that relies on White's kind face and smooth voice to mask the man's own prejudices and racism. "I'm not shouting," the man continually reminds us. He lists some other genocides and the bloody hands of some other great man, then circles back to disdainfully cry, "But the precious Jews!" It's a momentary lapse into his true feelings that hammers home an ugly truth about our current state of affairs. Some of those "good people" on the other side can pass for human, if you only listen to how they state their beliefs and not what they're actually saying.

click to enlarge Eric Dean White delivers a subtle, nefarious performance in Neil LaBute's "The Fourth Reich." - PATRICK HUBER
Eric Dean White delivers a subtle, nefarious performance in Neil LaBute's "The Fourth Reich."

The next play, "Shut Up and Dance," suffers for following such a crackling work. Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich's story of a mother and daughter deals with fallout from a political protest. The daughter (Erin Brewer) is a Rockette, or recently was; she quit after refusing to perform at the Trump inauguration, or perhaps was forced out after she stated her opposition on social media. Now she's driving aimlessly away from NYC, haunted by a pair of imaginary cheerleaders/dancers (Colleen Backer and Carly Rosenbaum, wearing tutus and "the future is female" shirts) and checking in with her mother (Margeau Steinau).

Matters are derailed by a long conversation about a commercial that uses a Beyonce song and the singing of the song's chorus. Things just taper off after that, wrapping up with what I'm guessing is the song under discussion. I understand that Beyonce is hugely empowering for women, but relying on her star power feels like shorthand for an actual ending.

Norman Kline's "Advantage God" is a farce about the day the 99 percent rise up to wage war on the one percent. Eric Dean White and Colleen Backer are a married pair of tennis-loving yuppies who react to the armed invasion of their gated community with the studied calm of the monied class. After all, why should they care about economic oppression now — they're rich, and that sort of thing never affects them.

Kline has a keen ear for dialogue and a keener sense of the people he's mocking. White and Backer are surrounded by insurgents, gunfire and explosions rock their home, and yet these two plan to go down swinging ... tennis rackets. An unexpected bit of deus ex machina results in a lecture from God himself (Reginald Pierre provides the disembodied voice) about the meaning of life. It only gets stranger from there.

Unfortunately, there's still one more show to go. James McLindon's "Hipster Noir" is a par-boiled detective story about a private eye (Reginald Pierre) who works in a hip Brooklyn coffee shop. He's hired to find the man who stole from an artisanal crafter of artificial beards (they're for hipsters with alopecia). Pierre is one of St. Louis' most powerful actors, but there's not much for him to do here. He delivers some hard-bitten narration and flirts with the bombshell who hired him (Carly Rosenbaum), but it's a one-note story driven by hatred for hipsters — and that's not enough to carry it through to the ending. It's a soft thud of a finale for the first half of LaBute Fest. One can only hope the second half can carry a double load.