We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

There he is. The Neil LaBute we know and loathe. The guy who made a specialty, in such unforgiving stories as The Shape of Things and In the Company of Men, out of vicious people and vile behaviors. If his signature Darwinian take on our everyday brutalities seemed to have gone all soft-focus in Fat Pig, the melancholy almost-romance that opened Jan. 4 at the Studio Theatre, fear not: On the evidence of Autobahn, a clever-clever new short-play cycle staged with some measure of polish by the non-Equity Studio Theatre Secondstage, the misanthrope of our times lives to snarl another day.

They’re all here, LaBute’s favorites: The vulgar bastards and the castrating bitches, the psychotic teens and the shallow, self-deluding suburbanites. The sex addicts, the drug addicts, the sexual predators—not one but two of them in this 90-minute half-a-handful of stories—and the guy who drops, as we knew somebody eventually would, the C-bomb. Thanks, Neil. Charming evening, that was.

In six compact playlets, all set in the front seats of various motor vehicles, LaBute plays with awkward silences and run-on sentences, with the carefully placed detail and the revelatory word choice, usually in pursuit of upended expectations. The guy (Scott Kerns) behind the wheel on what looks like a laughably awkward first date turns out to be thinking of making it a last date, for instance, but just as you decide that Bench Seat is setting him up to be a typical LaBute cad, his companion (Veronica del Cerro) turns the tables—and suddenly our antihero looks like a guy who ought to be worried about the fate of his bunny. Another short, Funny, traps an uncertain mom (Elizabeth Richards) in the car with the daughter (Karen Novack) she’s picked up from rehab, and for a while, as the daughter rattles on about the picturesque setting and Dad’s visits to the grandparents and the thank-you notes she’s been meaning to send, it feels as if LaBute’s working on a warm fuzzy. Then comes that oblique reference to The Postman Always Rings Twice, and the psychological terrorism starts.

It’s LaBute’s appetite for such reversals that keeps audiences off balance in Fat Pig, incidentally. And anyone who’s seen one of his other shows spends most of its 90 minutes waiting for the twist, the drop of the shoe, the revelation that one of the play’s central twosome is gaming a relationship that the playwright has actually come to mourn. In Autobahn, the little shocks, couched as they are in brief encounters with quickly sketched characters, come to seem as much a conceit as their common setting is. They’re entertaining devices, but mostly they mean nothing.

Sometimes the gamesmanship is only about language: It’s obvious from the first moments of Merge that Vanessa Vaughn’s traveling businesswoman isn’t being straight with the pained but mostly patient sweetheart (James Konicek) who’s driving her home from the airport, though it’s a while before his nitpicking about her choice of plurals is revealed to be more than just a grammar prude’s pedantry. Credit LaBute’s spare, punchy dialogue and the performers’ deftness that their back-and-forths are both mordantly funny and more than a little painful. All Apologies is perhaps the most direct, despite its monologist’s spiraling sequence of defensive profanities. Too bad that, as a decidedly Martian man stuck in a stopped car with a silently fuming Venusian holding the keys, Darius Suziedelis starts blustering at such a fever pitch that he’s got nowhere left to go—and a long 10 minutes or so to get there.

The production, with only a row of drab gray chairs and a steering wheel to stand in for everything from a vintage Buick to a sleek luxury sedan (the simple platform set and understated lighting are by Colin K. Bills), seems mostly apt, though director Erica Gould might have stopped Kathleen Geldard from costuming Jesse Terrill and Cecil E. Baldwin in off-the-rack Molesterwear™. Both men do superbly unsettling work, but telegraphing their characters’ secrets up front deprives the otherwise disquieting Roadtrip of its unnerving surprise and keeps the potentially ambiguous Autobahn from being as poignant—or, failing that, as startling—as LaBute intended.

Worse is that with only a very few exceptions (Konicek and Terrill chief among them), Gould and her performers aren’t able to put the flesh of characters on the bones of text LaBute’s given them to work with. In some cases, that may be an actorly failing or it may be Gould’s. But more likely, it’s that Autobahn’s playlets are too concerned with their word games and spring-the-surprise devices to allow much room for actual characters.

The biggest trouble, though, is that those devices get a little dull once you’ve seen ’em a few times. For all LaBute’s writerly gifts, for all the perverse inventiveness of his plot-making, there’s an unintended sameness to the playlets that make up Autobahn. Sitting through it is like watching six back-to-back episodes of something you’ve TiVo’d: You discover the rhythms; you start to anticipate the tricks. And pretty soon, you know exactly what wicked nonsense Bree and Gabrielle and the girls are gonna get into. After that, it’s just waiting—and waiting can be pretty deadly in the high-speed lane.CP