In Neil LaBute's two short, scathing one-acts, the overarching theme is the notion of extreme retaliation for wrongs committed. Both vignettes boast characters motivated by darker aspects of the human psyche and driven by spiteful passion. In brief, the venom gushes like oil from a Texas oil well. In LaBute's world premiere “The New Testament,” directed by Bjorn Johnson, a pompous playwright (Tim Banning) and a spineless producer (Benjamin Burdick) take an actor (Peter James Smith) out to lunch as a preface for their dumping him from the writer's play, in which the actor has been cast to play Jesus Christ. Although one can imagine the actor might accept the loss with grace if the firing was handled with charm and finesse, these are qualities utterly lacking in the boorish, foul-mouthed writer, who launches into a bigoted tirade so offensive, the actor digs in his heels. The cavalier manner of the actor's being fired is slightly contrived — we can't accept that the writer would act like such a pig for fear of legal reprisals, if not for reasons of human decency (a quality rarely found in any play by LaBute). Yet, the interplay between the crisply defined characters is taut and gripping. We can't wait to find out who is going to win — or, more precisely, whether the loathsome writer will get his just desserts. LaBute himself directs the bill's other play, the ferocious “Helter Skelter,” in which a pregnant wife (Kate Beahan) joins her philandering husband (Ron Eldard) for a Christmas hotel lunch, which turns into a harrowing sequence of hateful revelations and tragedy. The play ends with a horrifying spectacle — but the actual point of the piece is the ultimately unbearable gulf of incomprehension between the suffering wife's desperate need for meaning and the oleaginous husband's total lack of moral compass. Eldard is bleakly funny as the scuzzball, while Beahan's beautifully subtle turn as the wife gradually morphs from all American sweetie to Greek tragic heroine. The Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., thru Sept. 4; Sat., Sept. 12, 3 & 8 p.m. (323) 882-6912.
Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.; Sat., Sept. 12, 3 & 8 p.m. Starts: Aug. 21. Continues through Aug. 30, 2009
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