Issue July 15, 2008

Theater Reviews

LaBute’s ‘Autobahn’ takes you on a road to nowhere  

(The Necessary Theatre presents Neil LaBute’s “Autobahn.” Directed by Laurene Scalf. Continues July 18-19 and 25-26 at The Rudyard Kipling, 422 W. Oak St.)

“Sitting in an automobile was where I first remember understanding how drama works … Hidden in the back seat of a sedan, I quickly realized how deep the chasm or intense the claustrophobia could be inside your average family car,” playwright Neil LaBute once said. Sitting in The Rudyard Kipling Saturday night, listening to nonstop recriminations and arguments for 90 minutes, I got a sense of the imprisonment a vehicle can impose.

This production contains five short vignettes, all of which are set in the front seat of a car. (There are seven in the original, but director Laurene Scalf omitted two, including the eponymous one.) The audience serves as witnesses to these emotional wrecks. We can’t look away, even though we want to at times. 

Submitted Photo: Victoria Barnes and Tony Prince star in “Road Trip,” one of five short vignettes from the Necessary Theatre’s production of Neil LaBute’s “Autobahn.” It continues at The Rud through July 26.
Submitted Photo: Victoria Barnes and Tony Prince star in “Road Trip,” one of five short vignettes from the Necessary Theatre’s production of Neil LaBute’s “Autobahn.” It continues at The Rud through July 26.

A mother drives her Nancy Spungen-ish daughter home from rehab in the first scene, called “Funny.” There’s nothing lighthearted in this dark play, unless you share the daughter’s twisted sense of humor. Joyce Thompson portrays the unstable daughter with a manic flair that makes you understand why her empty parents deserve punishment. 

In “Road Trip,” a creepy, middle-aged man is taking a high-school girl camping way across the country. She appears naïve, but I felt she knew the score. She coyly nestles into his shoulder for a nap while he summons the courage to massage her head. Am I telling myself she’s not entirely innocent to avoid thinking it’s something more sinister? Victoria Barnes and Tony Prince make this scene pop with tension.

Next, a man and woman are having a fight by the side of the road in “All Apologies.” Here, the man (Brian West) veers between angry and contrite as he offers insincere apologies for a crude remark. He rages against our ancestors for not inventing the right words to express his feelings. The woman (Mariam Williams) has no words, conveying her feelings through body language alone. 

“Merge” is the most interesting and best-acted vignette. Mark Forman plays a husband picking up his wife (Kate Baumgardner) from the airport. She’s back from a convention and extremely sore “down there.” She says “all two” men broke into her room, and then she passed out. Forman makes us want to know what happened in that hotel room, while Baumgardner dances around the subject like a young Muhammad Ali. The electricity between them is palpable. 

“Long Division” is little more than a vehicle to showcase Andy Pyle’s considerable talent. The scene is a good acting exercise, but the story runs out of gas.

The problem is that these vignettes are mere seedlings for full-length plays. Each could go somewhere if only he would take the time to tease out the story. LaBute’s wordplay is fun to follow, but his worldview is (or was at the time) extremely misanthropic. (He’s apparently mellowed over the years.) The best scenes are those in which both characters actually speak to each other, instead of having one actor serve as a mime, which can (and did) lead to distracting mugging. —Sherry Deatrick

•••

Tennessee Williams plays marred by overdone accents

(As Yet Unnamed Theatre Co. presents “An Evening of Tennessee Williams.” Directed by Gary Tipton. Continues through July 20 at the Kentucky Center’s MeX Theater.)

No one disputes Tennessee Williams’ status as one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century. What should be disputed, however, is the liberal use of thick, overdone Southern accents that plague too many modern productions of Williams’ plays. The accents run amok, as wildly untamed as the deep Southern kudzu that overtakes everything in its path. 

That “An Evening of Tennessee Williams” — As Yet Unnamed Theatre Company’s production of two lesser known plays, “This Property is Condemned” and “Suddenly Last Summer” — still managed to transport the audience to the blurry world of distorted truth and barely concealed desperation Williams always creates is certainly more a testament to his lyrical genius than to the efforts of the company. The culprit? Yes, the usual suspect: heavy and inconsistent Southern accents.  

One of the biggest problems with adopting an accent is that it’s often a lazy character choice, fooling the actor into working less to develop internal character. Especially in non-professional theatrical productions, I’d much rather see an actor drop a cumbersome accent in favor of spending more time creating the character’s emotional life. 

AYUTC’s cast falls prey to these pitfalls, with most of the actors who employ an accent slipping and sliding out of it, over-emphasizing certain words and then losing it completely. Sandy Richens Cohrs as Mrs. Venable never loses the accent but wallows in it so indulgently that she doesn’t even seem to be in the same room as her fellow actors.  

At least there’s still the language. Williams expertly captured the contrast of the Southern persona, peeling back the veneer of carefully polished class to reveal the brokenness lying so closely beneath the surface. And in spite of the horrors he uncovers, there’s nothing like the honeyed words he uses to divulge them. It’s just a shame you can’t hear them better. —Rebecca Haithcoat