I’ve been a fan of Neil LaBute for some years now, and when a chance came up to get reviewers comps to see the London debut of his short play cycle Autobahn, I was all over it. New job leaving me too tired to go out? Fie, I say, I will survive!
And yet, even with a 7:15 start time and seven playlets tucked inside its two hours, Autobahn struggled to keep my attention. I struggled especially with the ones that were essentially monologues with an audience: “funny,” a young girl (Zoe Swenson-Graham) talking to her mother (Sharon Maughan) as she drives the girl away from rehab and back to normal life, struggled to become interesting – her own lack of awareness of how much she was monopolizing the conversation and how little she had to say left me empathizing with the mother. Later on, “long division,” which had one man ranting at the other about how incredibly unjust it was that his friend’s ex had kept his video game player, seemed to be struggling for a reason to exist. I couldn’t understand why the silent member of these two parties didn’t just stop the car and get out.
Much more interesting were the skits in which the characters were engaged in conversation. I was quite caught up with the unspoken violence underneath “bench seat,” “road trip,” and “autobahn,” where we were merely given snippets of what had happened to bring the characters to the point we joined them and then plenty of time to watch the story spin out, leaving us wondering when the explosion would happen. (In all cases, we never get to what seems to be the “inevitable” violence – a relief, really.) My favorite, though, was “merge,” in which a man (Henry Everett) and a woman (Maughan again) try to work out just exactly what happened to the woman when some men broke into her hotel. It reminded me of Rashomon – just what version of reality is the real reality?
While the cast was uniformly good at creating substantially different characters without even the benefit of a change of scenery (everything took place in the front seat of an American automobile), I have to give special credit to Zoe Swenson-Graham, who was fully believable as a semi-psychotic small town sweetheart and as a fairly innocent teenager with a violent past (and possibly a violent future) to deal with. It was hard not to get caught up in the stories she was representing, but unfortunately they were whisked away and replaced with less interesting ones. I’m glad I got to catch up with some shorter works by LaBute, but unfortunately I ran out of gas long before it did.
(This review is for the opening night performance, which took place on Friday, August28, 2014. It runs through September 20th.)