Premieres of three one-act plays by Neil LaBute, a presentation by the St. Louis Actors’ Studio, add up to a provocative program, with two particularly strong works following a problematic opener. All three are excellently acted.
The second play, “Great Negro Works of Art,” is set in a museum were a woman and man meet for the first time after connecting on the internet. Brenda Meaney as Jerri and KeiLyn Durrel Jones as Tom react favorably to each other at first. Tom is light-skinned but of African-American heritage. Jerri is white.
Despite the initial attraction, as they begin to view photos in the exhibition, a gap between them widens. Jerri feels Tom is becoming too dogmatic and hostile, while Tom finds Jerri rather ignorant about black culture.
LaBute explores their differences as the two walk around observing paintings and verbally spar with increasing intensity. We begin to wonder whether they can bridge the gap and take the relationship further. Both Jerri and Tom are likable individuals and sincere in their perspectives.
“Unlikely Japan” consists of a heartfelt monologue by the impressive Gia Crovatin as Katie, who recounts how she was watching television news of the mass shootings by a killer in Las Vegas, when she suddenly recognizes a name from her past as one of the victims. LaBute in the monologue emphasizes the pattern of watching news about frequent shootings routinely, but, when a victim is somebody one knows, getting shocked into considering the reality and tragedy of such a loss.
Katie and the victim had a relationship going when they were in high school. She had kept secret from him that she was also seeing another, but not knowing that, he bought tickets for them to go to Japan as his graduation gift to her. Katie describes how she was going to go through with the trip, but suddenly changed her mind, didn’t show up and left him stranded at the airport. That was the end of their contact.
Now, some ten years later, she regrets how unfair she was and speculates that had she kept her promise, life might have turned out differently, and perhaps he might not even had been in Las Vegas to meet his doom. She berates herself, but it is too late for such second thoughts. Crovatin is deeply convincing about the emotional trauma Katie is experiencing.
The show’s opener, “The Fourth Reich” is difficult to swallow. Although the monologue is skillfully performed by Eric Dean White as Karl, LaBute’s efforts to make us look at Hitler in a different way are shallow, and even offensive. Yes, Karl, admits, Hitler lost the war and he made mistakes. There were, of course, the six million Jews murdered, Karl acknowledges.
But the thesis is that we can’t just look at Hitler in a simplistic way. LaBute conjectures that there was much more to him. Karl displays a painting for us to look at, presumably a copy of one of Hitler’s paintings in his early effort to become an artist. The implication is that had he gained recognition as an artist, things might have turned out differently.
Karl expresses his feelings that there is much hope for the future, which he envisions as a very happy, agreeable world. I’m not sure of what LaBute is driving at, but the very idea of trying to see Hitler in a more human and perhaps more constructive light is simplistic and can make one squirm. LaBute needs a better play than this to develop such thoughts, whether serious or an attempt to critically satirize a Hitler supporter. LaBute directed “Unlikely Japan” and John Pierson directed “Great Negro Works of Art” and “The Fourth Reich.” At the Davenport Theater, 354 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed January 15, 2019.