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Friday - Wednesday through January 27, $47-$57
The work of controversial writer-director Neil LaBute returns to the New York City stage for the first time since MCC suddenly ended their longtime relationship last February with the fourth annual LaBute New Theater Festival, which has moved from its previous home at 59E59 to the Davenport Theatre. Without publicly stating any reason, MCC canceled LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty Happy, the follow-up to Reasons to Be Pretty and Reasons to Be Happy, but he has plenty of reasons to be pretty happy with this three-pack of one-acts, presented in conjunction with the St. Louis Actors’ Studio, where the festival began in 2013. Never one to back away from hot-button, controversial issues, LaBute begins the ninety-minute evening with the New York premiere of The Fourth Reich, in which Eric Dean White plays a middle-aged white man speaking directly to the audience about his belief that Adolf Hitler has been unfairly chastised just because he lost the war. “Let’s be honest: The man made some mistakes, that’s what he did. Made a few mistakes,” he says matter-of-factly, sitting on a long bench. Next to him is a pitcher of water and a small painting. A few moments later he adds, “As I have already conceded, he lost, he did, fine . . . but he actually had a few very smart things to say about life and politics and . . . warfare — the Jews, of course — all of those subjects . . . but it’s just ‘baby with the bathwater’ every time in these sort of situations and it shouldn’t be!” White is so calm and, well, not unlikable that it’s a testament to his acting and LaBute’s writing that you don’t want to just go up and punch him in the face. (One gentleman walked out immediately after it was over.) It’s also possible that in this age of social media, we all know that arguing about divisive subjects, including the possibly fascist tendencies of our current president, is not going to change anyone’s mind. Director John Pierson lets it all unfold naturally, so I was surprised that I did not get deeply angry at what he was saying and even wanted to give that painting a closer look, such is LaBute’s deft mimicry of the way genocidal lies are told these days to make them go down easy.
The next two pieces are both world premieres, starting with Great Negro Works of Art, in which LaBute uses an internet date to address racism and white privilege. Jerri (Brenda Meaney) has chosen to meet Tom (KeiLyn Durrel Jones) in a museum gallery displaying “Great Negro Works of Art” in order to demonstrate how enlightened she is. However, he is more quickly affected by their names, pointing out that together they are Tom and Jerri, like the cartoon (Tom and Jerry), something that had not occurred to her. LaBute and Pierson — and Meaney and Jones — do a terrific job managing the initial intricacies of a first date, the nervousness and uncomfortability, particularly as they discuss lying. But as some truths come out, they each try to defend their biases, one more than the other. At the beginning of their date, you want them to bond, to be a good match, perhaps partly to satisfy your own need to prove you do not have old-fashioned racist ideas; costume designer Megan Harshaw stirs the pot even further by having Tom wear a T-shirt depicting NFL outcast quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling, his afro turned into a powerful fist. It all ends up being a little too quaint as LaBute takes the easy way out, but it still packs a punch to the gut.
In the finale, Unlikely Japan, a young woman (Gia Crovatin) is talking to her unseen therapist about Tim, a high school boyfriend who was one of the victims of the 2017 Las Vegas concert shooting. She found out from a television news report, explaining, “I’m sitting with my salad there . . . just watching this . . . and I’m not sad, really, I don’t think that’s what I feel because it’s been so long and we’ve both done so many things and gone so many places since then. . . . but I do feel bad . . . don’t get me wrong, I do feel that. Obviously. I feel bad because this person has died, someone that I know . . . or at least have ‘known,’ I’ve known him, in the past, and now he’s . . . dead. Shot dead. So yeah . . . I don’t feel good. I’m not happy about it.” The woman is the kind of self-obsessed person who twists everything to make it about herself; she includes tiny, insignificant details in an attempt to delay the real reason she is sharing the story, and yes, it has more to do with her than with Tim, who had become a successful photographer. Like the man praising Hitler in the first play and Jerri trying to justify her lack of prejudice in the second, the young woman in the third is defending something she believes, only in this case she is seeking a kind of forgiveness for questionable choices she’s made. Art plays an important role in each work, as Tony nominee LaBute (All the Ways to Say I Love You, In the Company of Men) uses his own art to explore the human condition and venture into controversial territory yet again.