FATE (Free Association Theatre Ensemble)
@ Common Ground Theatre, Nov. 13-15
@ Market Street Books, Nov. 20-22

Being trapped in a car together can often bring conflicts to a boil, resulting in hundreds of miles of yelling and awkward silence. In my experience, such conflicts usually end after everyone laughs it off at an Applebee’s, but it remains a rich source for drama. Unfortunately, the visual confines of such a scenario mean that there haven’t been many plays exploring this beyond Driving Miss Daisy.

Free Association Theatre Ensemble has taken this challenge head-on with its production of Neil LaBute’s autobahn, which plays in multiple locations throughout the Triangle (the production I saw was at Common Ground in Durham; the next is at Market Street Books in Chapel Hill). Constructed as six short plays all taking place within the confines of a two-seat car set, autobahn‘s vignettes show the range of conversations (or lack thereof) that can take place within a car, with results ranging from the comic to the disturbing.

Several of the pieces function more as monologue, with one person ranting while the other silently reacts. The best of these is the titular piece, with a wife (Lisa Levin Klein) dwelling on the aftermath of an unsuccessful attempt at foster parenting as her husband (Philip Semanchuk) grimaces. Other pieces are built on back-and-forth interaction, with the best of these the disturbing “road trip,” about a teenager (Miranda Day) headed cross-country with a much older man (Lewis Caviness). As the unsettling nature of their relationship is gradually revealed, the audience gets a picture of what led to this moment, and what will happen next, and neither prospect is very comforting. It’s the highlight of the evening, along with the last segment, “bench seat,” about a college-age couple where the guy picks the wrong make-out spot. Noelle Barnard does some great comedy work as the increasingly unhinged girl (and makes impressive use of the limited space), while Allan Maule does a great job of conveying the man’s increasing discomfort.

Even if autobahn weren’t very good, I would still have to give major props for presentation to the playbill, which is done in the style of a foldout road map. But thankfully, this show is an entertaining and sometimes provocative evening about being stuck in the same car with the hell that is other people. Fortunately, this is the theater, and we’re only trapped with them for a half-hour at a time.