News Column

Theater LaB finds a home - temporarily

October 26, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 26--Theater LaB Houston is back in business, with a new venue -- resuming productions in November with a season at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak.

Founder and producing director Gerald LaBita's 65-seat theater presented more than 120 Houston premieres of plays and musicals from 1993 to 2012 in the tiny venue that was once a grocery store operated by LaBita's parents in Houston's First Ward.

Last year, however, LaBita sold the building on Alamo and announced Theater LaB would take a hiatus before resuming production. No doubt some feared that was whistling in the dark, as sometimes proves the case when a company ceasing operations promises to return. Yet somehow, I figured when the LaB closed its last show in the old space in December, that LaBita meant what he said.

"The Alamo Street venue had served us well for 20 years," LaBita says. "But I had a chance to sell the space, and we were planning to become one of the resident companies at the new Midtown Arts and Theatre Complex -- which is going to happen. But that won't be completed for another two years, so we needed an interim venue."

LaBita says he looked at several possibilities to rent as the LaB's own space but -- long story short -- they were either too small or beyond his means financially. So he went to Obsidian's management with the list of shows he wanted to do and they found the openings in the facility's calendar.

"All we missed doing was a spring 2013 series," LaBita says. "There's no change in programming philosophy. We'll still do the best in contemporary theater -- meaning theater happening now, not four years ago. These are things I caught in New York or Los Angeles or fringe festivals within the past year."

While the company specializes in quirky, off-Broadway fare, before its hiatus, LaBita managed to snag the rights to do Houston premieres of such prominent mainstream works as the Stephen Sondheim musicals "Assassins" and "Passion," Kander and Ebb's "The Rink" and Willy Russell's long-running London success "Blood Brothers." Its long list of notable plays, including Brad Fraser's "Unidentified Human Remains," Maria Irene Fornes' "The Conduct of Life," Athol Fugard's "My Children! My Africa!," Tracy Letts' "Killer Joe" and David Hare's "The Blue Room."

The lineup of 2013-14 shows is in the characteristic Theater LaB groove, with a couple of talked-about off-Broadway plays, as well as solo shows that LaBita liked when he saw them at fringe festivals, and a home-grown piece showcasing Houston talents.

Here's what the LaB has on tap

"Man 1, Bank 0," created and performed by Patrick Combs, Nov. 13-17. This is Combs' true story relating how he deposited a $95,000 junk-mail check into his bank as a joke -- and the ensuing craziness when the bank cashed it. This modern David-and-Goliath tale shows the clash between humanity and corporate culture. It has played in New York; London; Edinburgh, Scotland; Dublin, Ireland; Montreal; and San Francisco. In the view of Time Out New York, "Combs has storytelling down to an art."

"Burnt at the Steak," created and performed by Carolann Valentino, Nov. 20-24. Valentino's solo musical comedy also is her own story: aspiring female artist of Italian descent leaves Texas for New York to pursue a theatrical career -- and immediately lands a day job managing an infamous multimillion-dollar steakhouse in the heart of Manhattan. The writer/performer morphs through 18 characters in the story's course. The show won the "best of fringe" award at recent festivals in Calgary, Alberta; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Boulder, Colo.; and has played sold-out runs in Orlando, Fla.; Dallas; Denver; and Fresno, Calif. "Valentino's hilarious memoir wowed audiences with its high energy and uproarious storytelling," the Calgary Sun said.

"Sixty Miles to Silver Lake," by Dan LeFranc, March 26-30. LeFranc's two-person play depicts the relationship of Denny and his divorced father, Ky. Denny lives with his mother during the week, with his father on weekends. So every Saturday morning, Ky picks up Denny after soccer practice and drives him the 60 miles to Ky's home -- creating a weekly ritual of uninterrupted time together. Though the play initially appears to be about one such ride, it develops into a composite of all the rides the father and son have taken, jumping back and forth across some dozen years. Variety wrote: "This painfully honest drama about the fragile relationship between a divorced dad and his son is one endless ritual of loving and hating and hurting."

"Husband Fixin' 101," created and performed by Julia Kay Laskowski and Patti Rabazza, April 2-6. Houston entertainers Laskowski and Rabazza have developed a following for their down-home musical shows in which they portray Mavis (Laskowski) and Myrtle (Rabaza), two dysfunctional "love advisers" who dispense therapy meant to solve problems but more likely to make matters worse. After their first two shows, "Country Gravy and Other Obsessions" and "Home for the Dysfunctional Family Holidays," they return with another outrageous original program of comedy and song offering their helpful hints on relationships.

"The Cockfight Play," by Mike Bartlett, April 16-May 11. A tempestuous triangle develops when a man takes a break from his relationship with his boyfriend of several years, and falls into an unexpected relationship with a woman. And both male and female lovers are prepared to fight for indecisive hero John. This edgy, explicit play takes a candid look at sexuality, with both bitingly funny and wrenchingly dramatic scenes. It premiered at London's Royal Court Theatre in 2009, winning an Olivier Award, then played to sold-out houses off-Broadway in 2012. "Bartlett's keen and dispassionate evocation of the will to control, to consume, to possess (is) what gives the work its punch and its invigorating lifeblood," wrote Ben Brantley in the New York Times." The New Yorker said "Bartlett's dialogue crackles and pops with the rhetoric of vituperation."

"Prodigal Dad," written and performed by Steven Fales, dates to be announced. Following sold-out Houston runs in his widely traveled solo shows, "Confessions of a Mormon Boy" and "Missionary Position," Fales returns for the conclusion of his "Mormon Boy Trilogy" -- this one about shattering family myths and fighting for his rights as a father.

For more information, call 713-868-7516 or go to theaterlabhouston.com.

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