Profiles Theatre

Filmmaker-playwright Neil LaBute has developed a reputation for the unpleasant. From his big-screen splash In the Company of Men to his most recent film, The Shape of Things, he’s pounded his misanthropic theme home: human relationships are governed by power dynamics. And the more attractive or otherwise alpha the agent, the more likely he or she is to abuse that power–and get away with it. As in the work of filmmakers Michael Haneke (Cache) and Gaspar Noe (Irreversible), LaBute’s strength is the formal rigor of his fixation on what’s worst in mankind.

Profiles Theatre’s superlative 2004 production of Adam Rapp’s Blackbird showed it also has an affinity for the dark side of life, which would seem to make a good fit with LaBute’s uncompromising, unsentimental vision. But despite this midwest premiere’s altogether excellent execution, LaBute’s new play Autobahn gets the better of the company–its structure throws his flaws into stark relief.

LaBute gets a lot of credit for realism, and deservedly so. But his dialogue is far from naturalistic, and his scenarios are seldom plausible. His insight resides in the larger game-theory truths he plays out rather than in details. That makes Autobahn–essentially six unrelated vignettes set in a car–a dicey proposition. A one-act simply doesn’t allow enough time to set up, let alone trigger, LaBute’s usual rhetorical bear traps. Not that he doesn’t try to snap a few shut. Applying his slow-reveal method, he drags out the exposition a few times: a man angrily attempts to apologize for something. A couple slowly comes to terms with something. A man and a girl go on a road trip somewhere. But in every case, all that emerges is a previous event and a clearly cancerous relationship, which then idles until the inevitable blackout.

LaBute plays as much of this for laughs as possible, as does the Profiles company under Darrell W. Cox’s game, sure-handed direction. Without the possibility of a jaw-dropping resolution, there isn’t much anyone can do but riff on LaBute’s incidental bits of jaundiced humor. Several actors–in particular Eric Burgher, Julie Zarlenga, Tyler Gray, and Joe Jahraus–make as much hay with that as they can. But tellingly, the most effective scenes are those with the blackest undertones: one that suggests child abuse, another that hints at worse. As his big-screen stabs at humor like Your Friends & Neighbors proved, LaBute just isn’t that funny a guy.

There are other difficulties. Half these dialogues are really monologues addressed to an actor who only listens. And a couple scenes are patently unbelievable. But the chronic problem with Autobahn is how overwritten it is. It even threatens to expose how overwritten the entire oeuvre may be. Because while LaBute has a point–people are on balance nasty–he can be a bit of a broken record. (As a colleague observed, “I have that point too . . . and?”) Aside from the spectacle of beyond-the-pale emotional brutality that caps his most striking work, he doesn’t have much to offer but stylized if accurately observed takes on codependency. Often, once the basic power dynamic becomes apparent, you could call “scene”–something I wanted to do halfway through each of Autobahn’s six unpleasant interludes.

That said, there isn’t a bad performer in the cast. In the play’s darkest, most genuine moments, Jack McCabe and Veronica Sheaffer are downright riveting. John Zuiker’s set design is efficient and evocative, and the show never fails to convey a sense of momentum. It just has nowhere to go.

When: Through 4/23: Fri-Sat 8 PM, Sun 7 PM

Where: Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway

Price: $13-$22

Info: 773-549-1815

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Wayne D. Karl.