Review of the 2022 LaBute Festival Set 1 at St. Louis Actors’ Studio

    The pandemic delayed the eighth LaBute New Theater Festival for two years. St. Louis Actors’ Studio is now presenting the plays selected in 2020 in two sets over four weeks. The first set is an impressive group.

    At the start of Aren Haun’s “What Else is New,” a man named Bruno wheels a suitcase into a diner to get out of the rain. He is demanding and suspicious as he poses questions about the menu to Mark, the man behind the counter. Mark tries to answer Bruno without encouraging him to continue, but Bruno prolongs the conversation at every opportunity. Eric Dean White as Bruno and Mitch Henry Eagles as Mark nicely depict the gradual thawing as the characters begin to understand each other.

    Benjamin and Geraldine meet for the first time at the beginning of John Doble’s Twilight Time. Much to their surprise, they both intend to commit suicide. Bickering gives way to banter as they discover much else they have in common. Alexander Huber’s Benjamin and Bryn Mclaughlin’s Geraldine charm each other and the audience as they find reasons to change their plans.

    Willie Johnson’s “Funny Thing” presents the beginning and end of a couple’s relationship, but not in chronological order. Johnson interweaves moments of exhilaration from the two men’s initial flirtation with bouts of recrimination from their breakup. Drew Patterson and Mitch Henry Eagles nimbly accommodate the extreme about-faces dictated by the play’s structure

    A couple walks into an antique shop in Fran Dorf’s “Time Warp.” Brian was an army psychiatrist during the Vietnam War. He now specializes in treating posttraumatic stress disorder. Brian and Beth have been married for many years. Prominently displayed in the shop is a painting by someone Brian knew in Vietnam. The painting reminds him of a horrible incident from his tour of duty and resonates with Beth, too.

    Eric Dean White as Brian and Carly Uding as Beth movingly portray their characters’ anguish as they relive harrowing experiences. Mitch Henry Eagles is serenely inscrutable as the proprietor of the shop whose wares are eerily relevant to the customers. Alexander Huber is a menacing figure in flashbacks prompted by the painting.

    Both sets of plays include “St. Louis,” by festival’s eponym, Neil LaBute. The play consists of three interwoven monologues. The speakers do not seem to be aware of one another as they face the audience and answer the questions of someone who is not seen or heard. The play reveals very little about the circumstances of the interviews.

    The characters stand in a line as they speak. The women are on the outside. The man comes between them in more ways than one. Stephanie and Sue are a couple living together in a Central West End apartment. After moving into the same building, Scott moves in on Stephanie. Brock Russell as Scott, Carly Uding as Stephanie, and Bryn Mclaughlin as Sue capture these characters’ edginess as they each tell their own side of a painful story.

    Patrick Huber’s set and lighting designs create a space that works with minor alterations for all the plays. Spencer Sickmann takes full advantage of this flexibility in his sensitive direction. Carla Landis Evans’s costume designs are right for each group of characters.

    The first set of plays in the LaBute Festival continues through July 17. The second set runs from July 22 through July 31. Curtain times are 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays in the Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle Avenue.

    —By Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo by Patrick Huber

    From left, Eric Dean White as Bruno and Mitch Henry Eagles as Mark in “What Else Is New” from the LaBute New Theater Festival.