Cruising with Neil Labute Down the Autobahn.

Unfasten your seatbelts; Autobahn isn't such a bumpy ride. The seven short, intense two-character scripts by Neil LaBute, grouped as a "play cycle" under one main title, are being performed by Totally Wow Productions in the studio black box space at WaterTower Theatre in Addison. Each playlet is set in the front seat of a car, with driver and passenger taking different journeys, literally and metaphorically. Changing actors and characters every few minutes makes for an evening of abrupt stops and starts, but the scenes whip by quickly, like scenery on the interstate. If only it weren't so easy to predict what's around every turn.

It's as if LaBute, best known for his dark gender-war plays The Shape of Things and Fat Pig, assigned himself the writing exercise of making car conversations into something pithy or shocking. In a couple of the segments, he comes up with interesting detours into the psyches of obsessed lovers and, in two plays, sexual predators. The other pieces too quickly fall into the same formulaic rhythm of set-up, awkward silence and twisted climax.

Directed by John S. Davies, who also acts in one of the plays, Autobahn features a dozen actors who are not part of the usual casting pool in Dallas theaters. They're an interesting bunch, especially the women.

In the tight little opener, Bench Seat, Ashleigh Domangue, who resembles a young Holly Hunter, plays the twangy, uneducated girlfriend of a grad-school teaching assistant, played by Andrew Worley. Parked on a lover's lane overlooking city lights, the couple engages in some frenzied tonsil hockey before getting into a back-and-forth about exactly what the boyfriend's intentions are. She fears he's brought her up to the romantic spot to break off their relationship — something that happened in the same place with a previous beau. He just wants to make out, but listens as she spills out her insecurities. "Are my lips too thin?" she keeps asking. He constantly corrects her mangled syntax, which makes her nervous. Then she lowers the boom with a little too much history about what happened after that last boyfriend dumped her. Brrrrrr.

In Funny, a mother (Ivy Opdyke) and young daughter (Delaney Beckman) drive away from the rehab facility where the girl has just completed a drug program. It's a one-way conversation, with Mom driving silently as her daughter carries on a disjointed monologue. This scene ends with a sharp zigzag in the plot, a device LaBute repeats in nearly all of the Autobahn plays. Beckman is wickedly good as the girl, letting just enough menace creep into her character to create a chill in the air between her and Opdyke. All Opdyke has to do is sit behind the wheel looking terrified, which she does admirably.

All Apologies is another one-sided convo, this time between a man (M. Serrano) and his wife (Nina Trujillo). She drives silently as he rattles out apology after apology for his horndog behavior. It's the weakest of the seven mini-plays.

Merge, a talky little two-hander, stars the terrific Delanie Bitler and the not-so-terrific Larry D. LeMaster (Totally Wow's founder and producer, but a rather wooden actor). As a husband drives his wife home from the airport, he cross-examines her for details of an encounter she's hinted happened in the hotel on her business trip. Were there two men in her room or 10? Did they break in or were they invited? And why is she sore "down there"? Her answers, meandering between truth and obfuscation, are delivered with biting sarcasm by Bitler, crossing and uncrossing her legs and peering out from behind glamorous sunglasses. She metes out information, interrupting the meaty details of the orgy with directions to her husband about how to avoid heavy crosstown traffic. One senses that this troubled couple has been down this road many times before.

With Long Division comes another stream of angry bro-talk in a scene featuring two delightfully offbeat actors, J.P. Frank and Dustin Sautter. One guy's been jilted. The other just wants him to get his video game machines back and maybe wreak a bit of revenge on the ex. Not much to this scene besides the exceptional buzz of energy between the actors performing it.

John Davies is at the wheel for Road Trip, the best of the seven segments, even if its outcome is the most cliché. In the passenger seat is Cindy Meurthe, an actress in her 20s who could pass for 15. Gradually we learn that the older man is a high school driver's ed teacher. The girl is his teenage student. They're on their way to a secret destination, with promises of Happy Meals and a cozy cabin. And as his hand strokes the little ride-along's red hair, we can guess what else this old wolf has in mind. The gravelly voiced Davies does creeping menace with bone-chilling authenticity.

The closer is Autobahn, starring Heather Child and Danny Evans. It's another monologue marked by LaBute's favorite verbal tics. He's constantly letting characters correct each other's grammar, or having one character parse another's words to the granular level. Child plays a suburban wife building the case to her husband about why they had to return their foster son to care and why her husband shouldn't believe the boy's accounts of sexual abuse. The actress brings a carefully nuanced nonchalance to her long speech. She keeps correcting herself, like a Stepford Wife trying for perfection. He keeps his eyes on the road, seething.

A warning about a technical aspect of all the plays in Autobahn: The actors sit on a revolving platform simulating a car, but behind them is a wall-size screen on which different loops of video show actual streets and highways with moving traffic. The images, shot on highways and city thoroughfares, shake up and down, particularly during the Bench Seat and All Apologies scenes. The effect for a viewer is like sitting on a boat bobbing in tall waves. It made me almost car sick, which perhaps is only too appropriate.

Jazz hands, everybody! Kander and Ebb's Chicago is back, this time with the Lexus Broadway Series at the Winspear. Choreography by Ann Reinking via Bob Fosse stages the best "Cell Block Tango" since ... ever. Leading lady Terra C. MacLeod, playing Velma Kelly, the vamp of murderers' row, resembles Reinking in the most splendid ways, belting songs and dancing with sinuous flare. Playing Roxie Hart, Tracy Shayne is, to be indelicate, older than most Velmas. I won't guess how old, but Elaine Stritch could be her understudy.

As shyster lawyer Billy Flynn, John O'Hurley, aka "Mr. Peterman" on Seinfeld and a winner on Dancing with the Stars, heaps on the charm. But he doesn't have to lift a heel in this role. He's coasting.

The standout is D. Micciche as sob-sister reporter "Mary Sunshine," played with a jaw-jangling soprano vibrato that's comically pitch perfect. Micciche steals the show from the leading ladies. No crime in that.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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