Review: ‘Autobahn’

Neil LaBute's short play cycle "Autobahn" doesn't finally cohere into a greater whole in the way its author may have intended, but it doesn't really matter. This series of vehicle-centered pieces isn't a single-minded convoy headed in one direction; it's a sampling of curdled joyrides and expeditions into darkness.

Neil LaBute’s short play cycle “Autobahn” doesn’t finally cohere into a greater whole in the way its author may have intended, but it doesn’t really matter. This series of vehicle-centered pieces isn’t a single-minded convoy headed in one direction; it’s a sampling of curdled joyrides and expeditions into darkness. LaBute doesn’t often get credit for his wicked sense of humor, and the bulk of this show is an admirable display of uncomfortable laughs. Open Fist Theater Company’s superb West Coast premiere presentation sees an excellent ensemble putting the pedal to the metal.

Daryl Dickerson is nightmarishly hilarious as a seemingly nervous girlfriend revealed to be a vengeful stalker in “Bench Seat”; Benjamin Burdick is equally good as her increasingly alarmed date. David Castellani is wonderfully manic as a guy working up to a truly grudging apology in “All Apologies,” looking like he’d rather punch the woman than say he’s sorry. “Merge” is a shaggy dog story that simply takes too long to get to its punchline, seeming like a gag from Playboy’s joke page. Lisa Glass is slyly amusing as a guilty wife whose story continues to get worse with each question, and Michael Franco excels as a husband whose kind restraint keeps breaking down into blunt shouts of disbelief.

On the more dramatic side of the road, Nicola Hersh is quietly dazzling in the titular “Autobahn” as a wife frantically trying to prop up her sense of moral righteousness after her foster son has made charges of abuse. Hersh’s perf travels from clueless chatter to angry rhetoric, from taking solace in the illusion of a loving marriage to the horrifying glimpses of knowing that her foster son’s accusations are true. Bruce Dickinson, who says not a word, is chilling as the silent husband, all nods and grunts and implacable serenity.

“Road Trip” is the highlight of the play, as an older man (Lawrence Lowe) takes a young girl (Kristin Mochnick) on a mysterious trip out to his secluded cabin. Lowe achieves a deep ominousness as the controlling man, his surface reason often interrupted by shocking anger; the sense of implicit violence generated is palpable. Mochnick is completely convincing as the unfortunate young woman, knowing something is wrong but trying to convince herself otherwise. The two actors are utterly in sync, and it’s a haunting piece of work.

Director Amanda Weier draws uniformly fine perfs from the cast, and, with the exception of “Merge,” she keeps the pace brisk. The evocative set, a highway curving down onto the stage to the car where the actors sit, with a litter of old tires and a fallen highway light surrounding them, is impressive, credited to Weier, Castellani and Jeff G. Rack. Cricket Sloat’s lighting almost adds another character to the scenes, particularly in “Road Trip,” where the shadows of branches and leaves continue to darken the stage as the young woman is taken further and further from safety.


Open Fist Theater; 78 seats; $20 top


An Open Fist Theater Company presentation of a play in two acts by Neil LaBute. Directed by Amanda Weier.


Sets, David Castellani, Jeff G. Rack, Amanda Weier; lighting, Cricket Sloat; sound, Peter Carlstedt; production stage manager, Jennifer Haire. Opened Oct. 13, 2006; reviewed Oct. 28; runs through Nov. 25. Running time: 2 HOURS.


With: Heather Fox, Pam Heffler, Benjamin Burdick, Daryl Dickerson, David Castellani, Maia Madison, Michael Franco, Lisa Glass, Jimmy Kieffer, Dylan Maddalena, Lawrence Lowe, Kristin Mochnick, Bruce Dickinson, Nicola Hersh.

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