If you’re only listening to what Neil LaBute’s characters are saying in his captivating one-act plays currently at the Davenport Theater, you’re probably missing out on a lot. And that’s because what invigorates this writer are people’s conscious and unconscious motivations. Not to mention their intentions, desires and dreams—all manifested through dizzying, diverting streams of thought and behavior. What makes LaBute compelling is that these things—the raw stuff of human interaction—never quite seem to match the uneasy perception of a simpler, starker, truth lying somewhere beneath the drama we’re watching. It’s an awareness that is much harsher than the view LaBute’s characters present of themselves, and whose blatant exposure, they might argue, would either elevate or destroy society, depending on their position in it.
Take the play that opens the evening, “The Fourth Reich,” starring Eric Dean White as a corrosively charming Hitler apologist addressing an unseen gathering. At the end of this 20-minute monologue, a woman in the front row of the audience the night I saw the show hooted at the performer. It was as though she’d been waiting until the lights came down to unleash her emotions. She probably spoke for a number of us. “The Fourth Reich,” directed with a calm but deliberate pace by John Pierson, resonates in a world that now has to contend with things like alternative facts and fake news. The man lecturing us on stage—using “normal tones” and his “inside voice”—contends that not enough attention is paid to what Hitler achieved before Germany lost the war. He acknowledges that Hitler made mistakes. “OK,” he says. “But he was not a monster.” The uneasiness we feel comes not from the speaker’s recitation of Hitler’s deeds (“Six million Jews. That’s all anybody ever talks about…”) but from the casualness with which he alludes to them. In directing us to the historical record, he squanders all sense of his own humanity.
In the second play, “Great Negro Works of Art” a black man, Tom (KeiLyn Durrel Jones), meets a white woman, Jerri (Brenda Meaney), at an art exhibit of the same name. Their date has been secured over social media and starts out with the sort of cute, stumbling boy-meets-girl rhythms we recognize from self-conscious, city people enduring the anxiety of a first encounter. When Tom calls attention to their names and the “Tom and Jerry” cartoon series, Jerri responds: “Until you just said it, no—mine is spelled differently, so—but you’re right, it’s kind of funny.” Before long the couple has graduated to discussions of race and gender, but their halting verbal patterns remain the same. Even when Jerri—no more knowledgeable about black artists than the couple’s namesakes—adds an uncomfortable, sparring edge, their cadences prove unalterable.
It is this veneer of familiar, presentational respectability—not unlike that of the lecturer’s in “Fourth Reich”—that gives this play its tension. Durrel Jones deftly mitigates Tom’s frustration with Jerri, seeming to bury it somewhere within the bouquet of flowers he greets her with—always within reach but held forgivingly at arm’s length. As for Jerri, Meaney or perhaps director Pierson, shades her a bit too much towards the strident side, making her less sympathetic and easier to convict. Meaney is a gifted actor, and the more complex Jerri is, the more successfully problematic the stakes become for both characters, not to mention the world they inhabit.
“Unlikely Japan,” the last one act of the evening, skirts the confrontational edge of the first two plays but retains LaBute’s penchant for probing beneath well-trod surfaces. A woman (Gia Crovatin), “talking to us (whoever we might be),” recounts her memory of a long-ago lover recently killed in a mass shooting. In retracing her behavior during their relationship, LeBute, here serving as both writer and director, allows the woman all manner of a verbal, circuitous noose with which to hang her younger self. Though the play sometimes runs the risk of sacrificing the tension gained from having an external antagonist to play against, Crovatin holds our attention and gives this elegiac monologue a crisp, self-implicating immediacy.
All of LeBute’s one acts presented at the Davenport deal with at least the proposition of alternative facts. The lecturer in “Fourth Reich” contends that evil is subjective, something we can label “without proof…without any facts…simply because we can.” But the remarkable thing about these plays is that Labute is not asking us simply to do our research and compile the facts before weighing in on the external evidence of history. He is instead asking us to mine the direction of our own internal moral compass and, without any coaching or prompting, reject the very notion of anything as tragically destructive as evil or alternative facts.
The Labute New Theater Festival, presented by the St. Louis Actor’s Studio, runs until January 27 at the Davenport Theater, 354 W. 45th Street, New York, NY 10019. Tickets are $47-$57. Click here for more information, visit Telecharge.com, or call 212-239-6200.