Iffy Early Neal LaBute Play Gets a Poor Rethink at City Garage
The term "juvenilia" refers to early work by an artist before their style or talent has matured. In general such stuff is only for collectors and completists—by definition, these things are not satisfying works of art and should only be viewed as route markers on the long road to quality. Filthy Talk For Troubled Times was Neil LaBute's first produced play, and while it has moments that point to the playwright he has since become, overall it's crude in an uninteresting way. City Garage, however, has decided to present the West Coast premiere of the show, but by adding their own concept and newly written characters and dialogue, the company has managed to make a weak play demonstrably worse.
The original show was set in a strip club, where male customers and female strippers spoke short monologues about their experiences with the opposite sex. In the City Garage concept, the play has been moved to an art gallery, where the men are bored guests and the women are waitresses serving them. The major change, however, is the introduction of three naked women who are part of the exhibit as “art objects.” New dialogue has been written for the art objects by Charles Duncombe, but unfortunately it’s either sterile pronouncements about art or women or objectification, or bland lists attempting wit or depth via word accumulation (“Art. Artifice. Artichoke.”).
Of the male actors, Troy Dunn makes the strongest impression as Man 3. He’s wryly amusing as a horndog who fancies himself a philosopher, getting the laughs from the secret of Sinatra’s allure to his observation that absolutely everything is phallic. Dave Mack is equally good as Man 1, but the quality of the written monologues he has is more variable. His humorous delivery of the story of walking in on his father having sex is expert, however.
David E. Frank and Kenneth Rudnicki have less effective monologues to work with, and they unfortunately don’t rise above the material. Cynthia Mance is raw and funny as a waitress who’s angry with men (her grim delight in talking about how surprisingly difficult it is to try and twist off a man’s scrotum is a highlight), while Katrina Nelson is more affecting as a woman who’s still searching for emotional connection. The “art objects,” Kye Kinder, Vera Petrychenka and Heather Leigh Pasternak, deserve credit for doing exactly as they were directed and retaining their dignity—it’s just a shame their talents are misused in this show.
Director Frédérique Michel’s staging of the main actors is listless and brings no energy to the production, but the synchronized movements of the “art objects” are even worse. Perhaps there is some hidden meaning to moving a red hatbox here, or stepping up or down off a platform there, but the robotic placements of these performers added nothing of significance to the show, and detracted from it greatly by imposing a blot of pretentious obscurity right in the middle of the stage.
The concept City Garage has added doesn’t work either—LaBute’s dialogue hasn’t changed, and the people who are talking are clearly not people talking at an art opening, they’re people at a strip club. This production is a square peg being placed into a round receptacle, and the result is splinters of aesthetic distress.
“Filthy Talk For Troubled Times” plays at City Garage (Track 16, Bergamot Station) through Feb. 26. Tickets are available online.