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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The New Testament and Helter Skelter
With the 30 minute opener, The New Testament, directed by Bjorn Johnson, LaBute figures to once again draw comparisons to David Mamet and not merely because he's got clipped dialog-speaking men doing each other dirt in a restaurant. Helter Skelter, which the playwright directs, is a husband-wife interaction that recalls the moral seediness of LaBute's bash: Latter Day Plays Grim? Unquestionably. Arresting? Passably so, and although bash alumni Ron Eldard is back to give the work added legitimacy, Helter Skelter legitimately belongs to Eldard's play mate, Kate Beahan.
Shorter, lighter and less gasp-inducing though it may be,The New Testament is the better play. Ruminating on the egos and power trips of theater people (although this could probably apply to cinema as well), LaBute places a writer front and center and &mdash with performer Tim Banning's great assistance &mdash makes said scribe a boob for the ages.
Via a murkily explained casting glitch, an Asian American actor (Peter James Smith) has been cast to play Jesus in a Broadway play. The playwright (Banning) who was not consulted and who has some casting say, wants the part recast and has brought his producer (Benjamin Burdick) to grease the wheels and make the buyout more palatable.
Over a fluffy coconut dessert at a toney restaurant, the playwright quickly reveals himself to be a racist, classist fool whose primary argument for the cast switch is his conviction that Jesus "is not a Chinaman." The actor, who wouldn't otherwise want to be within 10 miles of this writer, realizes it's still a great part. Plus, he's got a contract, so he's not agreeing to anything. The meek producer twists his napkin a lot and tries to keep things civil. . .he keeps the actor from punching the writer in the nose.
The three players are skating over issues of artistic political correctness, artistic freedom and, yeah, even a writer's desire &mdash entitlement even? &mdash to a little power. "I'm God here," the writer, a squeaky voiced Banning, says, "this is the world of my creation." Any sane individual wants to see this guy brought low, but if creative control is the goal, the man's got an argument.
James's actor goes from bulging veined to verge of rage to logical inductive thinking with some real dexterity. We don't learn the actor's history, but he's likely been stepped on, too. Since he can't actually punch the writer in the nose, the actor looks to the producer to be an ally. "You have to be a little bit brave here," he says. Not surprisingly, the producer isn't. The New Testament wraps up on a bit of a cheat, albeit a satisfying one LaBute sometimes lets his characters slide, stink free, from their dirty deeds. Not this time. The play leaves room for discussion and offers up a cool little scenario to boot. Theater lovers should be especially pleased.
Delight holds little place in Helter Skelter which is twice the length of Testament. It also takes place in a restaurant and which gives both its husband and wife several monolog drenched minutes to philosophize on behavior (him) and what it means in the grander scheme (her). After listening to her hubby wax on about "working for a better tomorrow," she concludes she doesn't ever want to be alone with the man again. Her declaration, far more intellectual even existential, confounds him. "I don't understand what you're saying,"is his retort.
Lack of communication/empathy is the least of their problems. Husband and wife periodically sneak off for a shopping and eating getaway together, leaving the kids with a sitter. The wife, seven or eight months pregnant, enters a restaurant where her husband is waiting. She demands the use of his cell phone to check on the kids. When he doesn't easily give up the phone for fear of revealing incriminating text messages, the wife has the evidence she needs.
Eldard is not easily recognizable under a shock of player blond hair and 70s sideburns. What slickness this guy may have had is quickly reduced to a mealy mouthed attempt at justification. As good as Eldard consistently is, there's a sense that LaBute &mdash who also directs &mdash has little interest in the husband.
Beahan's wife, in steely repose or speech, is our magnet. She's mightily wronged. Her logic is sound. She's not about to make a scene beyond, perhaps, a strategic double bang on the table. The confirmation of her husband's duplicity is a blow that has shaken not only her faith in her marriage, but in the order of the universe. There is a single thrown-away reference to the Mansons, but the thematic helter-skelter of the title is far more universal. "What now?" is the play's final line. What now, indeed. Before we reach that place, however, the wife asks her husband to bring matters to a conclusion "vividly, amazingly and operatically." If you know the works of Neil LaBute, then you know this can't portend well. And indeed it does not.