The LaBute Festival Returns to Form in Its Second Half 

click to enlarge A counselor (Erin Brewer) helps Miss Chap (Carly Rosenbaum) work through a bad day at elementary school in "The Process."

JUSTIN FOIZEY

A counselor (Erin Brewer) helps Miss Chap (Carly Rosenbaum) work through a bad day at elementary school in "The Process."

Is the second half of the LaBute New Theater Festival stronger than the first, or does it just feel that way because it's the finale? The question probably doesn't have a definitive answer; art is subjective. But subjectively speaking, the four plays now on stage at St. Louis Actors' Studio are indeed more polished and rewarding than those in the festival's first half. This time, all four shorts feel like finished works. They are polished, professional and, most important, they each evoke an emotional response. That's why we go to the theater, and that's why the LaBute Fest matters.

Neil LaBute's "The Fourth Reich" again opens the show, with Eric Dean White's pleasant man arguing for the critical reassessment of Adolf Hitler's life and works. Earlier White appeared to stress his rationality with a calmness that slowly grows more manic. Now he comes across as more antagonistic, as if he's daring the audience to argue that Hitler is indeed a bad man. This may be a false perception because I knew where the play ends up, but I found it more difficult to remain quiet when he paused for rebuttals.

Michael Long's "The Gettier Problem" is a brief excursion into the mind of a woman who is either a scientist dangerously committed to her research or mentally ill — or both. Colleen Backer brings an airy charm to the character, who has checked herself into a mental hospital in order to undergo brain surgery for the unnamed syndrome that causes her severe head jerking. She confides to her favorite orderly (Spencer Sickmann) that she's faking it all to further her research into the provenance of the human soul. Long's script takes several twists, and we're left with an overriding uncertainty about what is true in this clean, well-lit hospital room. That uncertainty mirrors the protagonist's own big question: Is the totality of a person defined and governed by their brain, or do we have a soul that determines who we are and the choices we make?

"The Process," by Peter McDonough, is a harrowing mystery. Primary school teacher Miss Chap (Carly Rosenbaum) discusses the stressful run-up to her wedding with a counselor (Erin Brewer). It becomes clear that Miss Chap is avoiding talking about a painful incident that occurred in her classroom; through split-screen and flashback, we see what unfolded on that fateful day.

McDonough creates a tension that gives way to horror, realized with great skill by Rosenbaum. The incident that led to the teacher's blocked memories becomes a nightmare that we all live through again with her; it's an emotionally draining, gutting experience. And while McDonough inserts a political speech that feels jarring and misplaced, it's not enough to derail the play. It's a vivid, heartbreaking show, one of the most memorable productions in LaBute Festival history. The audience member who gasped "oh, shit" in the silence after the end spoke for many.

click to enlarge Mr. Barker (Zachary Allen Farmer) sells words to his best customer (Spencer Sickmann) in "Unabridged." - JUSTIN FOIZEY
  • JUSTIN FOIZEY
  • Mr. Barker (Zachary Allen Farmer) sells words to his best customer (Spencer Sickmann) in "Unabridged."

The final play, Sean Abley's "Unabridged," is a far more lighthearted matter. Mr. Barker (Zachary Allen Farmer) runs a ruined shop with nothing on the shelves. His best customer (Spencer Sickmann) has the appearance and mannerisms of a junkie, which he is. Mr. Barker sells words out of his dictionary to a clientele with limited vocabulary. Just how limited becomes clear when Eric Dean White's well-heeled man comes in looking to buy something special for his wedding anniversary, which is a word he doesn't know.

While the customers talk around and elide the words they're looking for, Mr. Barker has a prodigious vocabulary and is unaffected by the words he sells. White, however, begins sniffing loudly, wipes his nose frequently and becomes jumpy as he reads aloud the grocery list he's purchased. It's a surreal play, but also familiar. Who among us has not experienced a horripilation upon discovering a truly excellent word — or in this instance, an excellent play about the strange effects language has upon us?

Despite the inherent humor, the play depicts a dark place to live. In the world of "Unabridged," men will kill for a dictionary and the good words are worth any price. Still, it's nice to see someone trying to grow their vocabulary. The visual of Sickmann blissfully reading from a dictionary and writhing in euphoria is enough to move even the stoic Mr. Barker.

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