The adage, “Write what you know,” has usually been a novice playwright’s guiding light. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the four new one-act plays grouped in the second and final round of the LaBute New Play Festival focus on writers or performers. It’s an inside look at crafting art, all with distinct points of view. Three offer dynamic pairs in memorable performances.
Neil LaBute, the prolific, heralded playwright, came in last Saturday to work with high school finalists at the staged reading of their winning one-acts and attend the evening’s slate. He is represented in the lineup with a blistering new one-act, “Kandahar,” which debuted in the first round and remains a powerhouse in the second go-round. Michael Hogan, who grew up in St. Louis and is now an actor working in New York, has carved an indelible portrait of a soldier in trouble.
A magnetic young actor. Hogan is also interesting in “Homebody” as an aspiring novelist who is miserable living at home with his semi-invalid mother, well-played by local spitfire Donna Weinsting. Anger and frustration ooze from Hogan and his cloying mother isn’t as pitiable as she first appears. Hogan and Weinsting established a finely tuned rhythm as they perform three scenes in a lengthier one-act. The unpredictability of Gabe McKinley’s twisty-and-turny script kept us intrigued, and with a steady hand, director Patrick Huber kept us guessing. Hogan has appeared in several of McKinley’s works, and that’s obviously a strong relationship.
One of the most delightful pairings is Paul Cereghino and Stephanie Benware as writing partners whose snappy repartee is reminiscent of vintage Hollywood movies in the clever romantic comedy “Pitch.” They connected with energy and charm, spotlighting the witty writing of local writer Theresa Masters and first-time collaborator Marc Pruter. Director B. Weller kept the pace fast and the action fresh.
In “There You Are,” B. Weller and Jenny Smith shine as a couple of new friends who meet at a writer’s conference, and share an instant connection. They could be more if they decided to go that route, but are married. The play, by psychotherapist and writer Fran Dorf, is a thoughtful rumination about a myriad of topics, but strongest about pursuing your dreams, at no matter what age. Christopher Limber nimbly directed this two-person conversation.
The weakest of the lineup is “Deirdre Dear” by Norman Yeung, a rather stale and choppy look at an actress desperate to win a substantial role, which would be her first since taking time off to raise a daughter. As Deirdre, Jenny Smith, in an ill-fitting blond wig, must compete with a younger friend/rival Bea, played by Alicia Smith. Stephanie Benware, Rhyan Robinson and Maya Dickinson are fine in supporting roles.
Now in its third year, the LaBute New Play Festival is gaining in stature. For the most part, the plays are more polished and have considerable potential. To hear fresh new voices is exhilarating.
At a glance
What: LaBute New Play Festival
When: July 31-Aug. 2
Where: St. Louis Actors’ Studio, The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle, St. Louis
Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or 800-982-2787 or at box office one hour prior to performances