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Wednesday, 08 June 2011 17:58

Ill-natured human nature

Written by Bob Wilcox
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I guess it's human nature to be fascinated by the nastiness in human nature. Playwright Neil LaBute certainly appears to be fascinated by the nastiness in human nature, which is probably one reason we are fascinated by his plays. It also helps that he's a very good writer.

Some people say he's a misogynist. On the evidence of his plays, that appears to be true. He doesn't think much of men, either.

Take "I Love This Game," one of the six short pieces being performed by the St. Louis Actors' Studio in the Gaslight Theatre under the collective title Just Desserts. Two men lose control at a Little League baseball game. One of them loses more than control. He's nicely understated in William Roth's performance.

Or Roth again as a husband whose wife discovers his affair with her sister. The wife's reaction is perhaps a little excessive, or just what you might expect from LaBute. Emily Baker handles it well, including the wife's too-long speech that leads up to the climax.

Or the playwright in "The New Testament," blithely spewing racist remarks in a lunch with a producer and an Asian-American actor. Chris Hickey gets all the laughs from the predictable clueless comments. Alan David, as the actor, and Bob Mitchell, as the producer, turn the tables on him in a neat bit of Mamet-like game-playing.

LaBute supplies bad women, too. One monologue, written by LaBute for this production, is titled "Bad Girl." Rachel Fenton glows with the satisfaction of a young woman who knows how to establish control in a relationship when she's lost control in another relationship.

Then there's Alyssa Ward as the terrifying sister of her wimpy brother, played by Chad Morris. Nearly silent through most of the piece, Ward's character finally spews a poisonous stream of venom on the brother's girlfriend, who may or may not be dying – a carefully modulated portrayal by Emily Baker again.

To be sure we know that LaBute can be even-handed in his presentations of meanness in either sex, he's written "Romance," a piece about a failed relationship, to be performed by two men, two women, or a man and a woman. I saw Chris Hickey, the nasty one again, and James Slover, who makes a fine effort to salvage some dignity through his pain. Jackie Manker and Belinda Quimby play in the alternative combinations.

We didn't see Manker and Quimby act the evening I was there, but they're in the restaurant and bar that serves as the setting for the six plays. Set and lighting designer Patrick Huber again triumphs over the limitations of the small Gaslight stage. Jennifer Krajicek's costumes have their own wit, as does Milt Zoth's sound design. Zoth and Kevin Beyer jointly directed.

LaBute can't dig very deep into any character in these short pieces – nor does he in his longer pieces. But he does write well, and he'll hold your attention – though you may later question your motives for watching. The production of Just Desserts more than gives the playwright his just desserts.

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