A Fistful of Dolors: Four Neil LaBute one-acts clock you upside the head (in a good way)

Christopher Hickey, Robert Mitchell and Alan David in "The New Testament"
Christopher Hickey, Robert Mitchell and Alan David in "The New Testament"

I know what you're thinking: An evening of Neil LaBute one-acts is more akin to being repeatedly kicked in the gut by an unseen assailant than it is to entertainment. LaBute's blazing dialogue is his greatest gift and his greatest weapon, and in short pieces unburdened by the needs of pacing, character development or a complete narrative arc, he'll use those brightly carved words like a six-gun, firing round after round into your ever-flinching body.

All right, so that does indeed happen, but not all night. Taken together, these four one-acts and two monologues, directed by Milt Zoth and Kevin Beyer, reveal the other arrows in LaBute's quiver: humor, compassion and — dare I say it? — a gentleness in some of his characters that heightens the sphincter-puckering terror that is occasionally visited upon them. Brought to you by St. Louis Actors' Studio, Just Desserts is more of a full meal than you might otherwise think.

"The New Testament," a three-character piece that opens the show, is the most abrasively funny playlet of the evening. A producer (Robert A. Mitchell), a writer (Christopher Hickey) and an actor (Alan David) sit down to hash out a deal over a piece of cake; the writer doesn't want the Asian actor to portray Jesus in his play, and in explaining his reasons he reveals himself to be casually and unrepentantly racist. Hickey plays this to the hilt, smugly absolving himself of blame with a strained, "I didn't make you Asian — it's not my fault." Alan David's actor valiantly argues for colorblind casting, the essential truth of theater as art and its role as an engine for social change, while Mitchell's producer, a black man whose business partner is a talented bigot, sits between the two trying to save his potentially award-winning investment from being sunk by charges of racism, or worse, an Equity sanction.

This is how our Art is made, LaBute laughs from behind his awful writer, a playwright who denounces the artificiality of the theater and the phoniness of its audience. All three actors make this bit of theatrical inside baseball sing even as it stings.

"I Love This Game," a monologue beautifully and affectingly delivered by William Roth, ends the first act with compassion. Our man is a devotee of baseball, but his love for the game blinded him to the fact that it is just a game, and this moment of weakness cost him his wife and children. Haunted by this terrible instant and longing for those fleeting snatches of bliss that come from being a husband and father, the man advises us to "Grab ahold of those moments of joy, and squeeze the shit out of 'em." This moment at the end of Act One is one of those times you should savor, because the second act looms menacingly.

Roth returns in "Helter Skelter," playing a husband opposite Emily Baker's pregnant wife. The pair meet in a restaurant after Christmas shopping separately, and slip into easy conversation about their kids, the gifts they bought and the many times they've made this journey. The fuse is lit when the husband's infidelity — with the wife's sister, no less — is revealed. Roth plays the husband with a guileless, slimy faux-morality as he tries to put a positive spin on sleeping with his sister-in-law. Baker is all-encompassing as the wife, imbuing this woman with a lived-in, worn frailty that burns away as her husband blathers on and on about how his affair could be a "good thing." What Baker reveals in the ashes is towering strength, a fury that expands to illuminate the room with a righteousness that is neither contrived nor wholly sane. Braying laughter at her husband's dithering, silencing him with a glare that could strip paint and then compressing her rage into clear-voiced, razor-sharp conversation with this man who is now a stranger, Baker kicks off her shoes with the finality of the last shot fired in a war and then drags us into the darkness that festers in LaBute's work. This is the insanity that boils up from nowhere and ruins lives. When it's over the audience offers hesitant, stunned applause, unsure if it's proper to praise your assailant for the thorough beating. It is, especially when the beating is laid down with such beautiful, nuanced fury.