Playwright: Neil LaBute
At: Profiles Theatre
Phone: ( 773 ) 549-1815; $18-$22
Runs through: April 23
Neil LaBute's plays and films ( In the Company of Men, Bash, The Shape of Things, Fat Pig ) have earned him a reputation as a misogynist with little compassion. This sympathetic production of Autobahn should soften that reputation without eliminating it completely.
Autobahn is composed of six two-character scenes that take place in cars on highways, byways or parked. None occurs on the German expressway of the title; these are American scenes about the difficulties of male/female relationships. The scenes are unrelated yet share commonalities, most notably misunderstandings over language and individual words. It's minimalist theater of talk and reaction. Indeed, three of the scenes are monologues in which one character says little or nothing as if confirming that every pair has a dominant, or even superior, half.
LaBute skillfully varies the scenes from silly ( two twentysomething guys planning to take back the Gameboy one of them left with his ex-girlfriend ) to creepy ( a middle-aged high school coach who's run off with a teenage girl ) . In between are a young couple necking and negotiating their way to relationship 'maybe,' a wife breaking the news to her splenetic hubby that she starred in a drunken orgy on a business trip, and a woman justifying why she and her husband are correct in returning a foster child to an institution. The women are not emotionally abused by the men any more than the men are by the women—LaBute is unusually even-handed—and the role of jerk is divvied up between the sexes. LaBute even manages a few moments of tenderness, a quality for which he's not well-known.
Viewed at a late preview, Autobahn was in sure hands under director Darrell W. Cox, whose cast of 12 was well on top of its game. The performances were cogent, believable and even stylish within the ultra-naturalism of the script and its minimal physical demands. The company features several young artists in their Chicago stage debuts and they blend perfectly with the veterans in the cast. Not to pick favorites, but Jack McCabe's pederast coach chilled with his utter blandness, aided by Amy Speckien's callow runaway girl, while explosive Joe Jahraus as the cuckolded husband and Katie Crawford as his dryly descriptive mate were very funny.
Given all the above, it seems like carping to want more, but I do. Despite an honorable production, Autobahn seems a small work—a series of sketches really rather than a play, like a revue built on a theme. The scenes are the sort that well might turn up in theater classes as excellent actors' exercises. Maybe after it's run a bit, the subtexts connecting all the scenes will deepen so that the total is greater than the sum of its parts.