Anyone familiar with Neil LaBute’s movies, In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, who attends the trio of confessional one-acts he’s calling Bash: Latterday Plays will expect a certain rankness. It’s fair to say no one’s going to be disappointed.
Bash, in fact, marks an escalation of sorts. In one sense, the playlets—in which attractive, garrulous people chat amiably about what turn out to be their grisly pastimes—are milder than the films. You don’t actually see these folks being unpleasant to each other; you just hear them talk about it. But whereas no one has actually died at the hands of a character in LaBute’s movies, his playlets all deal with murder—the cold-blooded offing of loved ones (or of loved-ones-by-proxy).
Lest that plot device smack of tabloidizing, LaBute has thoroughly classed up the motivations of his characters. The theater is a temple, after all, not a mere bijou, so you won’t find dating fiascoes or menstruation-stained sheets getting avenged in Bash. The grievances here are strictly—and literarily—classical. Before intermission, the characters take all their cues from Greek drama; after intermission, from the Bible.
The curtain-raiser, aptly entitled Medea Redux, finds a 28-year-old working-class mom (Tina Frantz) speaking matter-of-factly of the revenge she has recently exacted on the junior high school teacher who seduced and abandoned her when she was 13. As the lights come up, she’s seated facing the audience with a pitcher of water, an ashtray, and a police tape recorder on the table in front of her. Though her right leg jiggles nervously, she’s essentially composed, her story emerging in a rambling monologue that twists and spirals along much the same random-yet-ever-ascending arc as the smoke that curls lazily from her cigarette.
The meandering nature of her story is not, you’ll quickly note, an indication that she’s including any irrelevant details. If she mentions a childhood interest in marine biology, you can bet that water will figure prominently in her narrative at some point. So will the literary classics of which her teacher was so enamored. LaBute likes to tie his plots up neatly, and in these theatrical tales of malice aforethought, he consistently places at least as much emphasis on the forethought as on the malice.
Witness the attention he pays in his second play, Iphigenia at Orem, to the thought processes of the traveling Mormon businessman (Edward Gero) who is telling a complete stranger about a family tragedy. The businessman has spent a lot of time contemplating the causes and effects of his infant daughter’s suffocation, which occurred while he was asleep in the next room. He consequently spins his tale in a carefully calculated way, brushing in events that initially seem unrelated, including slights at work, casual and not-so-casual misogyny, police suspicions, and even practical jokes. The story is at once simpler and more complicated than it appears, though it’s utterly unambiguous morally. (I can’t say too much about specifics without spoiling the device LaBute uses to maintain tension, but suffice it to say that you’re expected to recoil in horror as he concludes with a cheery admonition not to worry about him—he’ll be all right.)
Revulsion is a similarly appropriate response to the after-intermission tale of the Manhattan soiree that gives the evening its collective title. The chief teller in A Gaggle of Saints is a tuxedoed Boston College student named John (Charlie Schroeder) who wears his all-American boy-next-doorishness as if it were a merit badge. As he and his girlfriend, Sue (Frantz again, elegant this time in a lace-bodiced gown and high heels), regale us with details of their courtship and preparations for the big party they’ve just attended, they seem like average kids. They met at a Salt Lake City high school (his first romantic gesture was to beat up her boyfriend) and have evidently been blissfully devoted to each other ever since. They’re hardly brain trusts, but they seem harmless enough until John’s expression hardens as he recounts how they passed a gay couple in Central Park while walking from their hotel to the big bash they’ve come to town to attend. Later, when he recalls convincing his buddies to return to the park without their girlfriends, the title Bash takes on a more sinister meaning.
In all three plays, the author goes out of his way to explain the cruelty of his characters with Freudian precision. John makes a point of noting, for instance, that the gay man who ends up bleeding all over John’s natty tuxedo reminds the college student of his father. And the two familial tragedies of a teenage mom and a Mormon dad are laced with plenty of what the characters no doubt regard as exculpatory details. Not that what they think about their behavior matters. They’re compassionless creeps with consciences small enough to embarrass a newt.
Still, because we have only their words to judge them by, and because words count more onstage than they do on screen, the characters in Bash feel more persuasive and nuanced than their unmitigatedly evil counterparts in LaBute’s films. Not better company, exactly—if you encountered any of these people on the street, you’d think twice before ever passing that way again—but more plausible. It helps that the actors—all of whom are terrific—play things straight and subdued.
In Joy Zinoman’s admirably crisp production, they inhabit featureless white-on-white cubicles in what appears to be a high-rise apartment tower looming ominously above a sterile, cookie-cutter suburban landscape. Russell Metheny’s snappy, deceptively simple setting rotates each new storyteller onstage, then tucks side walls tightly around them to concentrate audience attention on the tales they’re telling. The lighting, sound, and costumes are similarly focused, so that if you want to identify with these folks, it’s easy enough to do so. On the other hand, do you really want to?
LaBute’s oeuvre is an acquired taste, and despite his skill with vicious dialogue and this company’s skill in making that dialogue vivid and unnerving, it’s not one that every stage viewer is going to regard as worth acquiring. As a reaction to Hollywood’s tendency to create bland, audience-friendly characters and moralistic stories, his screenplays have certainly been a tonic. But unremitting nastiness has been a stage staple since Richard III and Lady Macbeth first trod the boards, so the effect of calculatedly “everyday” savagery is necessarily different when encountered live. Projected on a 20-foot-high screen, the monster next door, even when he’s being depicted as appallingly average, can’t help seeming larger than life. On stage, he’s apt to seem merely appalling and average.
Hannah Arendt, the woman who coined one of the century’s most memorable phrases—”the banality of evil”—specifically to describe the appallingly average, is the heroine of Lynne Kaufman’s serious new comedy, The Last Game Show.
Kaufman appears to have had a couple of promising ideas for this play. One was to dramatize how Arendt, a Jewish intellectual who fled Germany during World War II, managed to rationalize remaining devoted for 50 years to her lover, the brilliant but unrepentant Nazi sympathizer, Martin Heidegger. The other was to craft a cosmic quiz show, set in purgatory, with the two diametrically opposed philosophers competing for an all-expenses-paid trip to heaven.
Given Kaufman’s snappy way with dialogue, she might well have made either of those notions—the Arthur Miller-esque drama or the comic sketch—work on its own. But she hasn’t found a way to mix both approaches to the material in a single evening, at least not yet.
The play starts well, with game-show host Alex (Gary Telles) badgering the audience into responding appropriately to “Applause” and “Boo” signs and helping hostess Lana (Allyson Currin) introduce the contestants (“Hailing from the Big Apple, that lovely Jewess…and her opponent from the Schwarzwald…”). Arendt (Rachel Gardner), having predeceased Heidegger (Carter Jahncke), understands the rules of purgatory better but finds that she’s still just a woman in a misogynist limbo. Playing “The Newlydead Game,” they’re amusingly mismatched. So far, so funny.
But after a bit, the flashback scenes in which the two philosophers meet, fall in love, and argue politics become intriguing enough that the jokes and game show interruptions start to seem more annoying than clever. Every time the arguments get pointed, they’re short-circuited by that applause sign, and we’re whisked back to the game-show conceit.
Quite apart from the fact that Heidegger’s dense philosophical constructs can’t be articulated in quick bursts between punch lines, and that Arendt’s coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann ends up sounding less epoch-altering than emotional, the divided format doesn’t allow Gardner and Jahncke to get as deeply under the skins of their characters as these able performers could. They end up depicting the couple in hopelessly stereotypical terms—emotional female, cerebral male—a not terribly interesting reading of one of the century’s odder romantic and intellectual matches.
That said, I should mention that co-directors Leslie B. Jacobson and Jane Latman have their game-show cliches down pat, from the synthesizer swooshes and fanfares that signal which way the point totals are headed (composed by Roy Barber) to the way Currin (who could replace Vanna White tomorrow) cocks her head when describing the prizes a runner-up can expect. The designers have mostly been resourceful on a budget, and the performances are fine all around. In short, they’ve done about as much as they can with an essentially unworkable concept and have come up with enough tantalizing moments to make you wish it could all hang together better. CP