I’m beginning to think I might actually like Neil LaBute, should I ever chance to meet him.
I didn’t feel that way after watching his misogynist businessmen plot to destroy their deaf secretary in In the Company of Men. And there was nothing about his variously unrepentant murderers in Bash: Latterday Plays, or his chilly sexual manipulators in Your Friends & Neighbors, or his calculatingly vicious grad student in The Shape of Things that made me want to have a beer with him. Even the comparative sweetness of Fat Pig’s romance (before he shattered it) didn’t suggest that this reflexively provocative author might be actively likable.
But the deliberate artifice with which LaBute frames his argument in This Is How It Goes makes him appear more tentative and vulnerable than usual, and though in his plays, anyone seeming remotely fragile or sensitive is apt to prove dangerous, it’s nonetheless an appealing ploy.
This is not to say that he’s pussyfooting around, exactly. He’s created a romantic triangle that will come apart at all three corners, spraying vitriol every which way when it does. But he’s crafted things at once scabrously and carefully this time, as if worried about being misunderstood as he burrows through glossy surfaces to reveal slime underneath.
His principal subject in This Is How It Goes is race: how the muting of prejudice—the lying we do to ourselves and others about racism—infects and inflects contemporary life. The play adopts a theatrically artificial way of approaching the issue, providing a main character, known only as Man (Eric Feldman), who is also the play’s narrator and who tells us at the outset that he’s going to be an “unreliable” one.
Just how unreliable will become evident as he chronicles his dozen-years-later encounter with Belinda (Anne Bowles), a blond looker on whom he’d once had a crush in high school. Back then, Man was a chubby class clown; now, he’s a trim, boyishly ingratiating ex-lawyer, returned to their small Midwestern hometown for reasons he’d rather not discuss. Belinda, when he encounters her on a shopping expedition to Sears, is being similarly tight-lipped about her life with Cody (Benton Greene), the black athlete she caught hell for marrying fresh out of high school. When he finally shows up, blunt, arrogant Cody has plenty to say—though it’s so consistently judgmental that it doesn’t reveal much about him except that he’s angry. And that he covets a Jackie Robinson baseball card Man somehow wrested from him many years ago. Ah, but secrets never stay under wraps for long in a LaBute gabfest, so it turns out that Belinda and Cody have a room for rent above their garage and that Man is looking for a place to stay, and soon they have entirely too much time to catch up.
At which point the unreliable side of Man’s narration kicks in. When Belinda gets a black eye, we see it the way he’d like it to have happened, after which he somewhat sheepishly rewinds the action, and lets us see the way it—maybe—actually happened. Conversations get replayed in a similar fashion, to explore what characters are thinking (generally vicious) versus what they’re saying (generally bland). Or maybe to reveal what the narrator thinks they’re thinking (generally unsympathetic). Or what he’d like them to be saying (even worse). And somewhere in this authorial rumination on truth, on attitudes, and on attitudes about truth, there lies (pun entirely intended) an intriguing if slightly muddy exploration of the social and personal costs of racial prejudice.
Now, there’s something almost reassuring about the fact that the theater’s reigning Prince of Darkness appears to be every bit as flummoxed by race as the rest of us. LaBute has never thought twice about populating his plays with misogynists, child molesters, murderers, and weaklings whose most salient characteristic is that they could all be the creep next door, but he has hedged his bets in This Is How It Goes in pretty striking ways. These characters feel less like people than like walking social constructs, and they’re involved in a situation that strains credulity. When epithets are blurted, they’re almost crazily ornate, contrived to the point that it’s hard to believe anyone could utter them without an authorial assist. And then there’s the evening’s rewind-and-replay structure, which allows an audience to accept whatever it wants about the characters—to back away from them when they behave badly and embrace them when they’re pleasant. That’s a lot of distancing for a writer who aims to provoke.
Still, provoke he does, albeit fitfully. In New York, the narrator was played by Ben Stiller, and it’s easy to imagine how his goofy public persona would make appealing a character to whom you’ll belatedly discover you do not want to cozy up. At Studio Theatre, Feldman has to work harder at first, being an unknown quantity, and at the final preview he was pushing charm so insistently that it took a while for the audience to warm to him. By the play’s midpoint, though, he was getting big laughs. Bowles’ appearance-conscious Belinda comes into her own a little slowly, too, but the actress proves adept at illuminating the darker side of this outwardly sunny blonde. Greene’s swaggering, seriously pissed off Cody makes an instant impression, then works interesting changes to it.
Paul Mullins, whose staging of Fat Pig last season was downright wrenching, can’t work a similar miracle here. Still, his direction is briskly cogent and never less than savvy in its use of color, from Debra Booth’s white-on-white, projection-enlivened setting, to the coded work costumer Kate Turner-Walker does with suburban fashion (wait’ll you see the change she works on your perception of a character’s actions by substituting a preppy pink T-shirt for a blood-red one in a replay of one scene).
None of which is enough to make the play more than a tidy little lecture on racial prejudice, a topic that, not surprisingly, resists being summed up tidily.