Friday, March 20, 2009

Autobahn, Cleveland Play House/CWRU

(Sarah Nedwek and Leigh Williams as druggy daughter and distant mom in Autobahn.)

When reviewing a set of seven short plays, all of which take place in a car, the urge to indulge in clever automotive wordplay is irresistible. So let’s get them all out of the way in one sentence: In Autobahn, playwright–driver Neil LaBute doesn’t buckle his seat belt of authorial restraint inside this hard-to-control vehicle, so that after side-swiping logic and T-boning credibility, his theatrical hopes crash through the windshield of self-indulgence, leaving his outlaw reputation bleeding on the pavement of overly-condensed inanity. There. No more car puns.

On the bright side, the young actors in the Cleveland Play House/Case Western Reserve MFA Acting program do what they can with LaBute’s masturbatory script. But unfortunate choices by director Alan Rosenberg contribute to an evening that is not so much enjoyed as endured.

LaBute is known for writing edgy plays that grapple with controversial topics, such as the excellent and searing Fat Pig and In The Company of Men. But in Autobahn, he lets his worst tendencies off the leash and the result is a hodgepodge of forced and determinedly precious vignettes that fail to work on multiple levels.

The proceedings start with a serious case of butt envy, since the plush car seats on stage, set behind a steering wheel, look immensely more comfortable than the ass-tormenting benches the audience has to sit on in CPH’s Studio One Theatre.

The general discomfort increases, however, as the first skit introduces irritating LaBute-ian habits which can most easily be summarized by the term (now coined here) of “autovociphilia,” or falling in love with one’s own voice. Four of the seven short works are virtual monologues, a technique that seems motivated less by plotting necessities than by the playwright’s preference to hear his own thoughts uninterrupted by the distraction of other characters.

In that first episode, mom is driving her 20-ish daughter (Sarah Nedwek) home from a drug treatment center, and the daughter rambles on and on until we learn that she toked while at the center and now plans to “do shit” as soon as she gets home. Well, you might think mom, even a distant “mommie dearest,” would have something to say. But not in LaBute’s world; mom is mute.

That lack of reality is a constant. In the second bit, also a monologue, the driver played with goofy verve by Tom Picasso rages on about how his buddy, sitting next to him, should take back the Nintendo his ex has kept after their breakup. Again, it passes understanding why the offended party wouldn’t contribute anything to the conversation, especially when the driver veers off into a digression about old people who complain at a movie theater.

Of course, a couple of the pieces touch on the playwright’s signal obsession, sex. In “Merge,” the wife (an amusing Leigh Wiliams) is telling her husband about a scary overnight at the hotel where she was staying for a business meeting. But Michael Flood, as her husband, can’t shake his stiffness, so that we never get a sense of his reaction to the veiled news of her attackers and/or sexual partners. And in “Road Trip,” a high school teacher (A.J. Cedeno) is driving one of his students (Lindsay Iuen) to a creepy getaway at a remote cabin.

In most of these vignettes, the primary (or sole) speaker muses about the aptness of certain words, as if they all shared some rhetorical/analytical chromosome that is no doubt similar to—the playwright! Hey, why bother creating different characters when you, yourself, are the most interesting person you know?

In the most successful piece, “Bench Seat,” Zac Hoogendyk and Nedwek play a couple parked at lover’s lane, but who have dramatically different agendas. Watching them each try to achieve their separate goals while dealing with lust and her barely submerged stalker mentality is quite fascinating.

As funny as “All Apologies” is, featuring a foul-mouthed guy who can’t offer a fucking apology to his wife without cussing, it’s a one-joke premise that barely sustains itself for ten minutes. And in the title work, a wife is enabling her husband, an apparent abuser of the foster child whom they have returned to the agency. But as the psychologically intimidated wife, Williams doesn’t find enough contours to make her character sufficiently believable or interesting.

Although understandable for economic reasons, it’s too bad there is only one car-seat set for all the plays, since this rather luxurious version seems out of place at times. And it is regrettable that director Rosenberg doesn’t require his actors who are driving to actually simulate the operation of a motor vehicle. None of the supposed drivers ever check the rear view mirrors, slow down, stop or accelerate—be they on a freeway or a surface street. If you’re not going to have the driving actors drive, just put them in a couple wing back chairs and call it “The Living Room.”

But the lion’s share of disappointment goes to the prolific LaBute, who has written enough good plays to know when he’s cranked out a lemon. (Damn, almost made it.)

Through March 28 at the
Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue,

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