It's a little funny that when bash premiered in 1999, it had the subtitle "latter-day plays," a name which was apparently so offensive (coupled with the dark content) that playwright Neil LaBute was disfellowed as a Mormon. It's funny because two of the three one-act plays take Greek names, and all three have the sort of trick endings you might attribute to a blood-thirsty O. Henry. There's nothing "latter day," in other words, about any of these things, especially not in 2009, where Eastcheap Rep faces the difficult challenge of shocking audiences with material that, sadly, isn't all that shocking these days. (They also face the even more difficult task of dealing with their upstairs neighbors, a very loud martial-arts studio that I'll assume the producers have since spoken to and will therefore ignore for the rest of this review.)
Luckily, director Robert Knopf comes prepared with a plan: he gives the audience the opportunity to get up close and personal with LaBute's text, clustering three-chaired tabled in a semi-circle around the ground-level stage. Given the acoustics of the Paradise Factory, the dim lights, and the exposed brick, the evening becomes a sort of Overheard in New York: "Minor" Guignol style, which is to say, very natural, and chilling, but without any actual blood. (Those who have seen Clay MacLeod Chapman's intimate The Pumpkin Pie Show will feel familiar goosebumps.)
Would that the acting could hold up to such close scrutiny! The first two pieces work well enough, with Chelsea Lagos playing a 13-year-old student who ends up having her teacher's baby ("Medea Redux") and with Luke Rosen playing a well-intentioned middle-manager who makes a difficult decision in order to preserve his job ("Iphigenia in Orem"). These pieces are direct confessionals, which aids both actors. Lagos's eye-contact both ensures that we're on the same page as her and reminds us that we can't possibly understand her situation ("I just watched Hogan's Heroes on TV, what else are you going to do, right?"). Meanwhile, it's a lot easier to see Rosen's professional face for what it really is, every time he makes that horrible little "smile."
The problem they both face is in "A Gaggle of Saints," in which the characters Sue and John take turns telling the story of the night their relationship deepened on a trip to New York City. One assumes that Sue doesn't know the truth about where her ring came from, but it's hard to believe that when they're standing next to one another the whole time--and it's even harder to believe the faux-naturalism of their last moment "together." Worse, while Lagos gets to show her range as an older, more refined woman, Rosen plays his part with the same disaffected mask, which makes it really hard to believe him when he claims to have been nauseated by the sight of two middle-aged gay men in Central Park. Lack of remorse is one thing, but without any signs of disgust, this play loses the savagery that is supposed to be lurking under our rented tuxedos and arm-length gloves.
A couple of other things don't ring true--like the fact that Rosen's dress pants are too short, or that his character's supposed to have long hair--but on the positive side, you'd only notice those things because of how well the direction makes you focus on the monologues. This revival of bash isn't anything to rush out and celebrate, but if you drop by a 10:30 weekend performance, you do get a glass of Prosecco to help wash down the dirty feelings LaBute so expertly evokes.