In the Company of the Male Gaze

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

The lights go down and three beautiful, statuesque women slowly enter carrying blood red hat boxes in front of their completely naked bodies.

That got your attention, didn't it?

That's largely the point of City Garage's new staging of Neil LaBute's Filthy Talk for Troubled Times. In truth, the piece is a mash-up of a 20 year old LaBute script with a new setting and new interstitial text provided by City Garage's Frederique Michel and Charles Duncombe.

The original 1989 script is set in a nudie bar "out near the airport" and it feels like an early dress rehearsal for LaBute's play-come-film In the Company of Men. The dialogue is vintage LaBute: men being men or men being misogynistic uncouth pigs ... depending on your point of view. As the men ogle, they expound on their personal philosophies of relationships, sex, race, and particularly vivid, and frightened, descriptions of female genitalia.

Director Frederique Michel has replaced the strip club setting with an art exhibit - fitting given the play takes place in the Track 16 Gallery at Bergamot Station. Instead of implied pole dancing we have the three naked art objects, remember them?

This trio of nudes enters reciting a litany of "art talk."

"Art. Artifact. Article. Artichoke. Art." - you get the idea.

Conceptually, it's a clever staging of the theory of the "Male Gaze." As a counterpoint to the drunken machismo, Director Michel offers the silent simplicity of the female form. As the men down plastic tumbler after plastic tumbler of free art opening wine, their tirades become darker and increasingly lewd - yet the statuesque women remain unfazed.

But it's that drinking, that dynamic, that not only brings down the men but ultimately the production. Director Michel is better known, and better suited, to the stylized movement and text of the women than the gritty naturalism of Filthy Talk for Troubled Times. She's focused on choreographing the men's drunken decline into a ballet of slurs and stumbles. Visually it provides a physical arc for the 75-minute show but theatrically it lacks the vulgar punch that Neil LaBute's work demands.

At its best, LaBute's writing is frightening and dangerous. It's the kind of dialogue that should make you uncomfortable in your skin. To achieve that you have to feel threatened.. In playing up the debauchery, the men become little more than drunken caricatures and rather than being afraid of them - you see them as just, well…pathetic.

Maybe it's fitting that by revealing the unflinching honesty of the naked female form, Frederique Michel has made Neil LaBute's men dramatically impotent.

Filthy Talk for Troubled Times plays at the Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica through February 26.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time: 75 minutes without intermission

Banner image: (L-R) Heather Pasternick, Vera Petrychenka and Kye Kinder in Filthy Talk for Troubled Times. Photo by Paul M. Rubenstein © City Garage, 2011