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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

There is no greater sign of the shortage of great American playwrights these days than the continued success of Neil LaBute. More than perhaps any other contemporary writer, LaBute's plays are consistently staged in New York, London and here in Los Angeles. That each successive play is barely different than the last seems not to matter to the actors and producers who gravitate to these works. What does seem to matter is that Neil LaBute has an active film career and still finds time to churn out short plays. This combination has served him well, for he's been able to get some of the finest film and television actors to lend their considerable talents to dialogue that rarely rises above the level of acting class monologues.

Of course, LaBute can always be counted on to fill these rants with controversy. Like his films, LaBute's plays are always about bad people (usually men) who do bad things and then causally justify their actions. Because these awful deeds are usually seen or described matter-of-factly, some of the audience can be counted on to be shocked. If LaBute is a master of anything, it is instinctively knowing modern America's inner sense of "don't go there." If you've ever heard that cliché spoken about any topic, chances are LaBute has already gone there. Racism, sexism, weight-ism, all the big politically incorrect topics have been covered; unfortunately, he has nothing to say about these issues, except they can make for awkward moments and that (surprise!) those who do awful things and think despicable thoughts may otherwise look like ordinary people.

A perfect example is LaBute's newest play Wrecks. In it Ed Harris plays a used-car salesman, whose last name also happens to be Carr. Anyway, Carr appears to be a likeable, everyday guy. For over an hour, he rambles about the recent death of his beloved wife, along with some Albee-esque dissection of words peppered with folksy expressions like "believe you me." Finally in the last fifteen minutes, we learn that Mr. Carr is actually guilty of one mankind's most shocking taboos. A few people gasp and the play is over. That's it. Sure, Wrecks provides Ed Harris a chance to smoke cigarettes and brood... but besides bad pun about Oedipus and cars (get it, Wrecks) really, that's all there is. And yet, the run at New York's Public Theater is entirely sold out.

It's hardly news that stars sell tickets, but LaBute's legit career exists only because he's accepted the role of Hollywood court composer of frivolous, easy-to-play sketches. A gifted actor like Harris can make these exercises seem harmless; but when LaBute's work has no celebrity factor the results are deadly. At the same time that Wrecks is a hot ticket in Manhattan, a small theater in Hollywood is presenting another new work of LaBute's. The west coast premiere of Autobahn has no stars in it, however; and on the night I attended, there were more people in the cast than in the audience. The Open Fist Theater Company often presents challenging plays, but I've never seen it so empty. Rightly, no one wants to see Neil LaBute play if it doesn't have a movie star.

And why should they? Besides different sins, each of the seven vignettes in Autobahn was exactly the same as the other--and his other plays for that matter: banal pop-culture chit-chat slowly revealing (often via clunky hints) a shocking truth--yet all of these shocking truths add up to a sum that's entirely false.

The local cast of Autobahn is not to blame. They try, with mixed results, to flesh out LaBute's misfits. Lisa Glass, Michael Franco and Lawrence Lowe fair best--but these seven short scenes all feel like discarded drafts. Without any celebrity quotient or star power to drive this production, the real shocking truth of Autobahn: Neil LaBute's plays are written on autopilot.

Autobahn runs through November 25 at the Open Fist Theatre in Hollywood; Wrecks closes next Sunday at New York's Public Theater.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.


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