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Neil LaBute seeks “the answer to everything” in Germany

AUGSBURG, Germany – If all you know about Neil LaBute’s new play “The Answer to Everything” is that it’s an artistic response to #MeToo and “cancel culture”, you could prepare for an overwhelming night at the theater.

A tightly wrapped bedroom play about three women who plan to take revenge on the men who wronged them, “The Answer to Everything” is the prolific and polarizing playwright’s first full stage work since “How to Fight Loneliness” in 2017. Since then. , he fell out of favor in the rarefied world of New York theater.

LaBute has long been a diagnostician of the dark and uncomfortable aspects of human relationships. A number of his best-known plays (several of which he adapted and directed for the screen, including “In the Company of Men”) are unsettling examinations of cruelty that may leave viewers wondering if LaBute is supporting or condemn his unsavory characters. Cynicism, meanness and ruthlessness – especially towards his female characters – have been some of the tools of his craft.

In recent years, these iconic themes and attitudes have come under scrutiny. In 2018, one of New York’s leading nonprofit theaters, the MCC Theater, abruptly ended its 15-year relationship with LaBute. No specific reason was given for the hiatus, but the theater’s executive director told The New York Times, “We are committed to creating and maintaining a respectful and professional work environment for everyone we work with. The internet was teeming with speculation that LaBute’s obsessive portrayals of toxic gender dynamics had put him out of step with the contemporary cultural climate.

This context helps explain why “The Answer to Everything”, in which the reward of women is prominent, does not premiere in any of the New York theaters where LaBute has worked for the past three decades, but rather in Augsburg, a city in southern Germany which is famous for being the birthplace of Bertolt Brecht.

It is unusual, to say the least, for a new play by a great American playwright to make its debut abroad and in translation. In an email, LaBute explained why he chose a German theater to create his latest work.

“There are so many courageous artists outside of the United States who are ready to present material that might be less politically correct or less user-friendly,” he wrote, “and these are the places I want to be. . “

All fears that LaBute’s new work might be a pity party after his exile from MCC, a night validating misogyny, or an anti- # MeToo manifesto evaporated once the curtain was raised on the elegant decor of the hotel in Paris. Susanne Maier-Staufen. Not only does the play take its female protagonists seriously, but it also offers no excuses for permissible (and rude) male behavior.

It’s hard to talk about “The Answer to Everything” without a spoiler, but I’ll do my best. LaBute does a clever job of keeping us in the dark for the first half of the evening, as the nervous and often chatty banter between the three heroines revolves around a central issue – a vengeful pact that binds them together – without naming it. Maik Priebe, the director, knows how to maintain the suspense and tension, which is painstakingly rendered in Frank Heibert’s German version of the screenplay, though the odd moments of comedic relief are mostly lost in the translation.

LaBute channeled a multitude of influences and delivered them in his own style, with fast-paced, naturalistic, overlapping dialogue. The plot themes are reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith and Hitchcock, two masters of suspense not exactly known for their positive portrayals of women. Take a closer look, however, and you’ll find traces of other work about relentless women who rubbed off on LaBute, from ancient Greek tragedy to films like “Diabolical” and “Drowning by Numbers”.

LaBute loves corkscrew-type storylines and while “The Answer to Everything” may sound like a 100-minute time bomb, it doesn’t explode as you might expect. Instead of wild twists and turns, we get a progressive series of painful reveals. (LaBute is going for something completely different from the explosive force of Emerald Fennell’s film “Promising Young Woman,” another recent female retribution drama.)

One of the most refreshing things about “The Answer to Everything” is the way she avoids moralizing. LaBute doesn’t manipulate his characters or his audience, and the tone is far from critical. We are not explicitly invited to applaud or condemn the “response” this group has set themselves for in order to remove predatory men from their lives. Instead, we’re asked to examine the gray spectrum between justice and revenge.

There is a critical twist that goes against the call to “believe all women,” which I might see squirming American audiences if the play makes it to the United States (there is not yet concrete plans for an American premiere).

A steadfast approach to examining bad behavior isn’t new to LaBute, but here he goes to great lengths to make us understand the motivations and weaknesses of his protagonists. The group portrait is sobering and also less terrible than one might expect.

The actresses are played skillfully, but not always with the nuance that the script seems to require. With her mix of composure and simmering rage, Katja Sieder is the most impressive of the bunch as Carmen, who is the pragmatic leader of the gang. Cindy, awakened by Ute Fiedler, equivocates and pleads with pathetic urgency. Paige, who is often stuck in the middle of battle, feels the least fleshed out, both as a character and in portraying Elif Esmen.

There were times when this production felt like an out of town essay. Judging by the enthusiastic response from an audience of teenagers and older adults at the weekday performance I attended, local Augsburg spectators were eager to embrace the puzzles and ambivalences. of the room, even if it meant coming home with more questions than answers.

The answer to everything. Directed by Maik Priebe. Staatstheater Augsburg, until March 12, 2022

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