The New Testament/Helter Skelter -- Theater Review

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Here's an interesting pairing of short plays by Neil LaBute: "The New Testament" is a world-premiere showbiz satire, directed by Bjorn Johnson. The hard-hitting marital drama "Helter Skelter," directed by LaBute, debuted last year in London. The plays share sardonic views of morally unconscionable male characters. The entertaining double bill -- at the Open Fist Theatre as part of the First Look Festival -- is driven by LaBute's knack for fashioning tense dramatic encounters awash with crackling dialogue.

One primary gag dominates "Testament," but it's a humdinger. A smug screenwriter (Tim Banning), who is appalled to discover that the director for his upcoming film has cast an Asian-American actor (Peter James Smith) as Jesus Christ, meets with the actor and the film's producer (Benjamin Burdick) in a restaurant to can the actor, hoping to persuade him to accept a contract buyout. The insufferably insensitive writer continually indulges in racial profiling -- for example, suggesting that the exasperated actor might like the cake being served because those from the Far East "like coconut."

Being an equal-opportunity offender, the writer also makes unfounded suggestions that the actor might be gay. The ineffectual producer fumbles badly when trying to defuse the situation. These actors offer a half-hour of hilarity with a cutting edge. A clever ending brings the comic chaos to a satisfying resolution.

Also amusing but far darker, "Skelter" is a tale of outrageous marital infidelity with a touch of Greek tragedy. Man (Ron Eldard) and pregnant Woman (Kate Beahan) take a break from their separate Christmas-shopping expeditions to meet at a restaurant. The wife's seemingly routine request to borrow her husband's cell phone takes on considerable significance when he desperately tries to prevent her from using it. He's ultimately cornered into confessing to a longtime adulterous affair with her sister. Then he goes to great lengths to rationalize his behavior with circuitous double-talk.

Eldard and Beahan master the script's edgy humor and chilling nuances. Beahan's depiction of the wife's controlled fury and suppressed pain is compelling. As the duplicitous, self-centered philanderer, the bespectacled Eldard uncannily sounds and looks like Woody Allen -- probably unintentionally but creating an eerie added subtext. This lacerating drama concludes with a startling twist.

Venue: Open Fist Theatre, Hollywood (Through Sept. 12)
Cast: Ron Eldard, Kate Beahan, Tim Banning, Benjamin Burdick, Peter James Smith
Playwright: Neil LaBute
Directors: Bjorn Johnson, Neil LaBute
Set designers: Myung Hee Cho, Sarah Rung Clement
Lighting designers: Charles Otte, Chris Wojcieszyn, Joe Morrissey
Costume designers: Leslie Rehm Hunt, Lynette Myer
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