Is it acceptable to break up with someone in a restaurant? Does it help to have dessert after you've been kicked in the teeth? Relationships -- professional and personal -- tank at the table in two Neil LaBute shorts, "The New Testament" and "Helter Skelter," now running as part of Open Fist's First Look Festival.
In the world premiere of "The New Testament," a writer (Tim Banning) with a new drama about Jesus tries to have the lead (Peter James Smith) fired from playing the Messiah because he is of Chinese descent. The producer (Benjamin Burdick) just wants to buy off the actor, but the performer is adamant: If Jesus is love, couldn't anyone, regardless of race, personify his promise of grace?
Their debate over coffee and coconut cream dessert echoes the May 2007 "Playwrights on Writing" essay LaBute wrote on the subject for The Times. In typical incendiary fashion, the playwright wonders if colorblind casting doesn't contain its own racist contradiction. Actors of color can take on classical roles, he argues, but imagine the outcry if Kevin Spacey wanted to black up for Othello. (Another example from the essay appears in "Testament" almost verbatim: If Brad Pitt wanted to play Walter Younger in a revival of "A Raisin in the Sun," wouldn't producers fight to ink that deal?)
America is living a Swiftian heyday (e.g., Stephen Colbert, Dr. Gregory House, Alec Baldwin in "30 Rock"), but "Testament's" bigoted playwright seems neither credible nor usefully outrageous. With his boyish haircut and Silver Lake styling, Banning reads more like a loyal listener of Ira Glass than a xenophobe. If there is a mild shock value in hearing anti-Asian slurs coming out of a liberal-looking mouth, LaBute doesn't parlay that energy into anything provocative.
"Testament's" generic showbiz satire gives the play the feeling of an exercise as opposed to real interaction. (Bjorn Johnson's stilted direction doesn't help.) Even "Entourage's" Jeremy Piven, who can practically generate his combustible Hollywood agent shtick by iPhone app, leaks some smell of genuine human desperation.
The more powerful piece, "Helter Skelter," ably directed by LaBute himself, explores that timeworn but compulsively watchable scenario: the revelation of an affair. A very pregnant wife (Kate Beahan) meets her husband (Ron Eldard) at a restaurant after a day of Christmas shopping. But she has a surprise that isn't gift-wrapped.
As their marriage unravels in minutes, the woman's shock transforms into something more elemental and horrific. (The sound design by Peter Carlstedt also contributes to the uneasy vibe.)
The elegant Beahan finds an eerie power in her psychic collapse, while Eldard plays one of LaBute's classic weasels. It's not much of a role, and he doesn't have an objective other than keeping his wife from creating a scene; he's really only a foil for Beahan's character to leap into unknown territory. This indoor "Zoo Story" shows the existential whiplash that comes with realizing your worldview has no basis in reality -- fascinating subject matter LaBute only begins to explore.
Despite the cruelty on view, LaBute gives his victims the last word. He seems to be finding his sensitive side. When people feel pain, table linens don't soften the blow.
'The New Testament' & 'Helter Skelter'
Where: Open Fist Theatre Company, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood
When: 3 p.m. Aug. 30, 8 p.m. Sept. 3 and 4, 3 and 8 p.m. Sept. 12. Ends Sept 12.
Contact: (323) 882-6912
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes