Written By Neil LaBute, Gabe McKinley, Cary Pepper and Adam Seidel

Directed by Kel Haney,  Michael Hogan, and John Pierson
Scenic design by Patrick Huber, lighting design by Jonathan Zelezniak , and costume design by Carla Evans.

Pound for pound, the writing in this year’s LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL isn’t as solid as in the 2016 edition, but its lighthearted tone provides a refreshing change, and the versatile cast more than matches the bar set by last year’s show.

Though the evening has no stated theme, a common thread runs through all the pieces. Whether comic or dramatic in tone, each one act play revolves around some form of contract negotiation. In Neil LaBute’s WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS, a prostitute (Clea Alsip) and her client “Bob” (Michael Hogan) lie in a hotel bed hammering out a plan for the rest of their evening together. The erotic options are literally listed on a menu, replete with moneysaving combo deals. Amid the haggling (is there really a separate charge for “horseplay”?), the two step out of their proscribed roles and begin to share a few personal details. She has many customers, of course, but Bob is a guy she can really be herself with. At least that’s the way it appears, and that’s good enough for a Bob. More than any of the specials on the menu, illusion is what the customers really want, and she knows how to serve it up. The tightest of all the festival’s offerings, VEGAS exhibits LaBute’s gift for blending comedy with unsettling insights into human despair.

In AMERICAN OUTLAWS by Adam Seidel, two men meet in an empty restaurant to discuss a shady business transaction. Mitch (Eric Dean White) is an accountant who’s out of place in the criminal underworld. Martin (Justin Ivan Brown) is cool, collected, and accustomed to violence. At first, it appears that Mitch, driven to desperation by his wife’s infidelity, wants to hire Michael to perform a mercenary task. As the negotiation progresses, though, a more complicated picture emerges. As it turns out, Mitch and Michael are both in love with the same woman, and they both work for the same mafia family (to whom Mitch is debt, thanks to a gambling addiction). Michael has an ingenious plan that will solve everyone’s problems, but it demands a sacrifice Mitch isn’t sure he’s willing to make. Seidel’s staccato dialogue has and entertaining punch to it, and the plot packs a few intriguing twists. But the balance of power remains so firmly in Michael’s court that the suspense begins to slacken over time. AMERICAN OUTLAWS has the potential to be a grim comedy in the Martin McDonagh tradition, but it needs some extra spin to keep us hooked.

Likewise, Gabe McKinley’s HOMEBODY is draft or two away from realizing the full potential of its satirical premise. Though he’s crowding 30, Jay (Michael Hogan) has no gainful employment lives at home with his mother (Donna Weinsting).  Jay once dreamed of becoming a writer, but American culture has deteriorated so severely that no one wants to publish well written novels anymore. Jay’s pessimism is challenged when hope arrives in the form of an acceptance letter. An editor at a major publisher recognizes Jay’s talent, and it looks as if a book deal is imminent. But the would-be author’s worst fears are realized when the editor calls back with bad news. In the age of Jame Frey, publishers don’t sell books, they sell writersand Jay’s mundane life isn’t the stuff of literary legend. For this to change, his mother will have to make the ultimate sacrifice. Jay’s bitter rants about the decline of literacy are spot-on, and the tango of codependency between mother and son is perceptively rendered. The story just needs to move at a faster clip to its twist ending. Like its protagonist, HOMEBODY is ambitious, but needs a good editor.

Cary Pepper’s MARK MY WORMS hinges on an ingenious comedic device. Theater director Mason (Justin Ivan Brown) is thrilled to be helming an early masterpiece by the late great modern dramatist Montclair. Equally excited is Mason’s old friend John (Eric Dean White), who will be playing the male lead.  There’s just one problem: the script is crawling with typographical errors. John’s character threatens people by pointing a bun at them, and it only gets worse from there. Yet there’s nothing the director can do about these glitches, as the playwright’s estate has insisted that the work be performed as written. When John’s scene partner Gloria (Clea Alsip) arrives, he hopes she can talk some sense into Mason. Alas, she too, having read a scholarly treatise on the subject, insists that Montclair’s use of baked goods as weapons is all part of his absurdist vision. Pepper has a keen ear for the inanities of academic-speak, and Alsip is delightfully sincere as she serves up high-level gibberish in a clipped British accent. Unfortunately, too much stage time is devoted to discussing, rather than playing, Montclair’s botched drama. Something closer to a David Ives treatment would have worked better: Establish the rules of the game quickly and confidently, then trust the audience to play along.

LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL continues through February 5, 2017 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison Avenues. Tickets: 212-279-4200 or online at 59E59.ORG.