The second half of the 2019 LaBute New Theater Festival is invariably compared to the first half, which is unfair. The three new plays (and Neil LaBute's own "Great Negro Works of Art," which plays throughout the fest) should be considered on their own merits.
Still, it's a mixed bag. There is perhaps less urgency in two of the plays, and the stakes feel lower all around. That's not bad – on the whole, the second half is highly entertaining, if lacking in dramatic tension.
Richard Curtis' "Predilections" is a negotiation between a highly private society woman and an obituary writer who loves a funny headline. Laura (Kim Furlow) has a story, but first Sparlin (Tielere Cheatem) is required to share his own backstory, and then relate the stupidest thing he's ever done before Laura will tell the tale. She then recounts her mother's incredible backstory and great mistake, and makes her demand that he not reduce her life to that mistake.
Both actors are very good (Cheatem, in particular, is completely unrecognizable as Sparlin), but there's no real drama. Laura is revealed to hold all the cards, and Sparlin's compliance is essentially guaranteed. Why Laura doesn't start from the point of complete control is the only mystery.
Joseph Krawczyk's "Henrietta" is a far more entertaining. Accountant Carl (Chuck Brinkley) gets in the car with his briefcase full of Viagra and sex toys and attempts to drive to a cheap motel. His autonomous car and its new navigation system, Henrietta, has other ideas. Carly Rosenbaum voices Henrietta with a sternness you'd think Carl would appreciate and eventually takes control of the journey and most of his life.
The play riffs on the toll extracted by our increasingly wired world and how we give away our private lives to machines and websites. Krawczyk's dialogue has a zippy snap, and Brinkley mines a great deal of humor on Carl's journey from lightly horny to outraged and then terrified. The mystery of who requested this upgrade is revealed, which adds that extra zing to Carl's plight. It's a smart, funny play with something to say.
William Ivor Fowkes' "Sisyphus and Icarus: a Love story" is a fairytale for adults. As in the myth, Sisyphus (Tielere Cheatem) schleps his boulder to the top of the hill day after day, but today finds handsome admirer Icarus (Shane Signorino) flying with his golden wings. They flirt, quickly fall in love and then we jump to a few years later to find them in the office of relationship counselor Libra (Colleen Backer).
It's a frothy comedy well played by Signorino and Cheatem, and it's aided immensely by Backer's thick Bowery Boys accent. It's light on subtext and heavy on jokes and wordplay (Icarus speaks like he OD'd on the Complete Works of Shakespeare, which is apparently infectious.) It's a stretch to say there's a subtext to all this (to keep your relationship healthy you must understand your partner's viewpoint, maybe?), but it's thoroughly enjoyable as a comedy.
In a trick of scheduling, "Great Negro Works of Art" closes the festival. It's even more awkward and painful if you attended the first half and you know what's coming. The arc of an ill-fated blind date between a black man (Jaz Tucker) and a white woman (Carly Rosenbaum) is packed with social landmines. Both actors trigger their explosions with more oomph after two weeks of performances, and their shared moments of silence are even more agonizing. Rosenbaum and Tucker have wired down their characters to the point that even their meet-cute is freighted with morbid tension. It's impressive, both as black comedy and as an exploration of the subtleties of white privilege and unconscious racism, and it's an excellent full stop for a festival that goes from strength to strength with each year.