Hostile Imagination: Neil LaBute's Autobahn lacks compassion

Presented by Footlight Players
Jan. 15-17, 9 p.m.
Footlight Players Theatre
20 Queen St.

Pity the lost souls condemned to motor the noxious landscape that is Neil LaBute's Autobahn. Here, what passes for serious contemporary drama arrives pickled in a brine of malice and it cries out not for a reviewer but for a psychotherapist.

And if this leaves us feeling betrayed — even a little queasy — it's because the aftertaste of such works is revulsion at the hostile imagination that was granted an unsupervised outing to dream up this sociopathic clutch of outbursts.

Our evening's ride-along with this unhinged sensibility offers us six unrelated scenes, all played out in the front seat of a car. Such a confined environment invites intimacy, but LaBute's gabby motorists won't find any of that. They will remain hostages to Autobahn's persistent evasiveness and snarky superficiality.

Each vignette opens with a pair of characters in mid-rant and fuming, sputtering or squirming over some undisclosed trauma. Sit through a couple of these and the play's pattern emerges: initial misdirection followed by revelation of a deep, dark secret. This largely unvarying arc becomes the play's tedious rhythm.

Don't blame the cast. Saddled with a one-trick pony, they ride it for all it's worth. Autobahn doesn't go anywhere. Literally. No one gets to their destination.

In "Bench Seat," a potentially ardent make-out session is continually interrupted by the lingering ghost of break-ups past. Girl (Palmer Stowe) is strapped into an increasingly frenetic spiral of self-doubt that leaves her companion (Jonothon Brunson) gasping for an exit.

"All Apologies" is a swipe at semiotics, with Man (Jesse Budi) blaming the failure of language to convey meaning for his own shortcomings. What's really afflicting him is a coward's thrift: shortchanging honesty to delay condemnation. His wife (Abby Kammeraad-Campbell) is left to pantomime her frustration with his ineptitude.

Set in a car heading home from drug rehab, "Funny" finds Young Woman (Eleanor Hollingsworth) trying to persuade Older Woman (Linda Esposito) that everything's going to be peachy-fine only to end up confessing just how badly things are likely to turn out.

Returning from a business trip, the Woman (Regan Blum) in "Merge" off-handedly fills her husband (Matthew Giedraitis) in on why she woke up in her hotel room naked and sore "down there."

Tishala Martinal pulls off a small miracle in "Autobahn," working against LaBute's sardonic swipe at tragedy by infusing the scene with a real human heart. She laments that with her husband (Jonothon Brunson) she must return their foster-child to social services. The moment stands alone, because it stings and then aches. Martinal manages to give flesh and blood to the clueless rant that LaBute gives her character.

Easily the most troubling of the lot, "Road Trip" is about a high school Driver's Ed teacher (Jerod Frazier) who take one of his female students (Atisha Mann) out for a very long drive. Given what the audience knows thus far of LaBute's tendencies, there's no prize for guessing the adult's intentions toward the girl.

I applaud the cast for giving this drivel their all. Besides Tishala Martinal, who works magic with the material, the cast mines the script for everything that might help it rise above LaBute's lazy pandering to a society's obsession with its pathologies. In honor of their efforts, I'll hold out hope that this kind of wholesale hostage-taking by dramatists will soon disappear, and the audience will be allowed an off-ramp for its Stockholm Syndrome.

We also dare to hope that playwrights will soon recover at least some insight into human tragedy and compassion toward it. For artists, these should not be peripheral skills. As an audience, we deserve better hands at the wheel.


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