- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2006

Experts say that if you want to find out what is going on in your children’s lives, drive them around in your car.

They start chatting away with their friends, even deigning once in a while to talk to you, and pretty soon you know more than you ever wanted.

This information overload, and the idea that the car is a moving confessional, forms the basis of Neil LaBute’s brutish evening of skits, “Autobahn,” a world premiere production at Studio Theatre. The six playlets take place in the front seats of cars, and set designer Colin K. Bills keeps the staging streamlined with an arrangement of metal chairs and a movable steering wheel.

The evening’s first short play, “Bench Seat,” finds a young couple (Scott Kerns and Veronica del Cerro) at a popular lovers’ lane, a place where you either smooch or get dumped. Two years ago, she was scorned at this very spot, and the experience turned her into an obsessive nut case, as her date quickly finds out.

The wacko-in-the-passenger-seat scenario returns for the second skit, “All Apologies,” a wan tribute to the profane rhythms of David Mamet’s dialogue in which a man (Darius Suziedelis) offers up a blisteringly blue mea culpa to his silent, ticked-off wife (Vanessa Vaughn). In “Funny,” the driver again remains mute. In this case, she is a mother (Elizabeth Richards) driving her defiant, manipulative daughter (Karen Novack) back home from a stint in rehab.

The monotony of vice continues with “Merge,” in which a wife (Miss Vaughn), in the spirit of total honesty, haltingly tells her distraught husband (James Konicek) about an evening of anonymous group sex during a convention.

Only two sketches reach beyond knee-jerk outrage.

“Roadtrip” is a queasy, disturbing car ride between an underage girl (Paloma Ellis) and her teacher (Jesse Terrill), who seems comfortingly nebbishy at first but grows increasingly creepy and controlling as they drive toward a secluded hideaway he has chosen for them near a lake. Miss Ellis’ body language, at once coltish and guarded, is excruciating to watch as she clings to the car door as if it’s a life raft. Mr. Terrill displays an edgy, soft menace as the pedophile.

The last sketch, “Autobahn,” is a harrowing monologue. Here, a wife (Miss Richards) tries to keep anguish and bewilderment at bay through a torrent of words and well-worn aphorisms as she and her husband (Cecil E. Baldwin) recover from a disastrous foster parent experience. Miss Richards deftly moves from cheerful resignation to howling pain as she desperately tries to absolve herself and her husband from the traumatic turn of events.

The array of psychoses in “Autobahn” is enough to make you want to take the bus. Shock value is Mr. LaBute’s stock-in-trade, but since the skits here are so sketchily formed, there is no weight behind the jolt. It is just an HOV lane’s worth of crazies and malcontents. You’ll want to pass them and drive away as soon as possible.

**

WHAT: “Autobahn,” by Neil LaBute

WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW

WHEN: 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 5.

TICKETS: $25

PHONE: 202/332-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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