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He Says: Truth Be Told, in LaBute New Theater Festival

He Says: Truth Be Told, in LaBute New Theater Festival

Truth be told, is somewhat the thread that holds these three one-act plays by Neil LaBute together. Funny, knowing that there is quite the storm of some sort crashing around this playwright’s sky, making truth a complex entity. But there it is, being tossed up before us. And it is done quite solidly, giving a master class times three on how to create uneasy drama and intent in short form. LaBute, best known for rattling chains in numerous compelling plays, such as All the Ways to Say I Love You, Reasons to be Pretty, and Fat Pig, never fails to find a twist in his punch, and an edge to his tongue, and for that bite, I’m rarely disappointed, sometimes offended, but generally curious. In his three one-act plays, The Fourth Reich, Great Negro Works of Art, and Unlikely Japan, with a simple but elegant set design by Patrick Huber, discrete and perfect costuming by Megan Harshaw, lighting and technical direction by Jonathan Zelezniak, and sound design by John Pierson, they each get a polished presentation that digs deep into the idea of truth-telling and fact checking.  Each of the three find a compelling circle of earthen dirt to dig into, regardless of the dynamic and/or topic, whether it is history, art, or interpersonal relationships that is buried below.

eric dean white in the fourth reich, directed by john pierson. photo by russ rowland (3)
Eric Dean White, The Fourth Reich. Photo by Russ Rowland.

It’s definitely an uncomfortable space to say the least, when The Fourth Reichswings into place, unearthing an idea that is both fascinating and disturbingly callous in its upfront ‘Ted Talk’ delivery by the strong-willed Eric Dean White (American Outlaws, LaBute New Theater Festival 2017). As directed by John Pierson, the Associate Artistic Director of STLAS, who also helms the second piece, Great Negro Works of Art, the audience that this opinionated text is being aimed at and intended for is perplexing and hot, and the space created for this one-sided discussion seems somewhat pointless in the overall arch of the dig, but what it does unearth is a strongly written monologue deconstructing an idea that wouldn’t sit well in most people’s backyard. It’s a theory about history being written only by the winners, and an idea that the facts point to an unpopular formulation that is being ignored by the masses. A timely topic for LaBute to try to plant before us. And possibly brave and foolish. The title of the piece gives you a strong cue, but the repetition of the argument and the slant of the shovel fail to root up anything digestible, beyond intrigue and a curiosity of the point.

keilyn durrell john and brenda meaney in great negro works of art directed by john pierson. photo by russ ( (4)
Brenda Meaney, KeiLyn Durrel Jones. Great Negro Works of Art. Photo by Russ Rowland.

The Tom and Jerri routine of the second piece asks a few other complicated questions revolving around the concept of truth-telling in the politically sensitive culture, particularly in what’s spoken and heard. Portrayed beautifully by the talented Brenda Meaney (RTC’s Indian Ink) and the handsomely sly KeiLyn Durrel Jones (Crowded Outlet’s Lone Star Spirits), the blind date app collision entangled the two in their words with such authentic and discreet ease that both seem utterly surprised to find them at odds when the physical chemistry is so strong. It’s a timely piece of complex engagement that is exemplified by the scrambled title of the art show they meet up at, and the title of the play, Great Negro works of Art. Why LaBute is telling this tale and the previous one is obvious but messy, like trying to ferret out all the roots of an infestation of weeds in a crowded flower bed. The damage is sneaky and hard to get rid of.

gia crovatin in unlikely japan, directed by neil labute. photo by russ rowland (4)
Gia Crovatin. Unlikely Japan. Photo by Russ Rowland.

Unlikely Japan is a great bookend, a similar but oddly different monologue that works well wrapping this idea of truth-telling up in a neat parcel of three. Starring the engaging Gia Crovatin (TFANA’s Pericles) and directed by LaBute himself this time, the confessional of bad behavior and guilt is both expertly done and presented while also being somewhat simplistic compared to the other two.  It revolves around the mass shooting in Vegas, but is more about the shame and sadness of not being sad about an old boyfriend who lost touch who tragically was one of the 40 or 50.  Her romantic remorseful tale is gorgeously recited but like the first fails to suggest a reason for being told, beyond an admission of disconnection and dissociation.  She is well constructed, oddly blasé, but authentically created, just like every other character in these three short one acts, and although the concept feels timely and real, the feeling that we walk out with is less grounded and nutritiously filling, with tangled thin roots that haven’t grown very deep into this contaminated soil.

gia crovatin in unlikely japan, directed by neil labute. photo by russ rowland (1)
Gia Crovatin. Unlikely Japan. Photo by Russ Rowland.

It’s been a long time since I saw one of his more controversial plays, I think at the MCC, like Fat Pig andReasons to be Pretty. I did love his Judith Light vehicle, All the Ways…  which asks at the beginning of that 60 minute monologue, “What is the weight of a lie?”; another reference to the concept of truth-telling and deception, but she holds back on the answer. We all know that there is no one single truthful answer, rather she gives us instead something that is a tangled web of rationalizations, admissions, and untruths, wrapped around a story as simple and complex as one can imagine. The writing highlights what LaBute does best, telling detailed and strange stories of attraction, bad behavior, and shame, forcing us to look at lies and truths through a lens that is warped. I also, while watching these three one acts, wondered what happened to his premiere that was supposed to be arriving this spring at MCC. When searching the twitter universe for Neil LaBute, you get unsurprisingly smacked in the head with people offended by his writings and his plays, begging for him to be censored or shaming those who are connected to or like his work. I know there is a story somewhere to be told about his split this theatrical season, and with tweets asking “why is Neil LaBute still being produced?” and proclaiming him a “sexist fantasy” “monster“, I would love to know the whole story. Is he a writer to be hated and villianized within the #MeToo universe? I’ll let you all decide amongst yourself, as within is the only place that truly matters when it comes to art. There is a debate and a discussion to be had, but I’m not going to get involved in that here, as there are too many  broad strokes that could be applied, and far too many ways to deconstruct writing, plays, and politics into simplistic bullet points.

Like the lead character in the first play, who wonders out loud, about the story that becomes ‘truth’ told by the winner in a conflict. Will that winner be the one to lay out and present the library of LaBute plays?  I have my idea of the truth, but it’s also a complicated and disruptive stance. He states in his first play that a “person’s not just one thing” with the facts being facts, and the rest, opinion. In someway, there is truth in that statement, but is there really a problem stating emphatically our own opinionated world view, like that Gillette ad? You tell me. But in the end, the play’s the thing, and these three are good, but planted in shallow earth.

keilyn durrell john and brenda meaney in great negro works of art directed by john pierson. photo by russ (
Brenda Meaney, KeiLyn Durrel Jones. Great Negro Works of Art. Photo by Russ Rowland.For more, go to frontmezzjunkies.com

Off Broadway
@#frontmezzjunkies

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last...so far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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