Thursday, June 07, 2007

PLAY: "In a Dark Dark House"

"Nothing like a couple of fag jokes to break the ice," says Drew as he keeps his distance from his estranged brother, Terry. It's a good way to introduce Neil LaBute, too: the sort of playwright who uses honesty as a weapon and politically incorrect humor as a shield. His latest play, In a Dark Dark House, isn't about "fag jokes," or even the supposed childhood molestation of Drew by Terry's father figure. It's about the ties that bind us. Underneath all of the whip-smart language and the nuances of tone, the play is absurdly physical, and its strength comes from the breeze of a putt on a mini-golf course or the swift ferocity of a bear hug. These moments shows LaBute's growth as a writer (perhaps in relation to his recent work as a film director): no longer do his delightfully wicked characters simply hurl insults at each other between bantering sessions (the splendid The Shape of Things) or inflict empty cruelties (Fat Pig). It's still LaBute, but a more ambiguous LaBute, one who has finally added insinuation to his arsenal.

LaBute's detractors question his predictable unpredictability: every play has a cruel, moral twist at the end, like M. Night Shyamalan directing the Saw franchise. Whether it's the misdirection of In a Dark Dark House or the darkness of Drew's stakes-raising confession, the surprise here is still surprising, most notably in how the actors handle it. Ron Livingston is so convincing as Drew--the smug, lawyerly asshole--that his tight-lipped explosions of anger and his throat-clenching tears allow us to see him as a victim. In fact, he makes his brother seem like the bad guy, especially with the force Frederick Weller brings to the role of Terry, a man so aggressive that even Drew's use of the word "Dude" draws one fist back. Of course, there's a twist in expectations already, for Drew's actually a manipulative liar, right down to the fake laugh, and Terry's a straight-shooting realist who doesn't buy into bullshit. Weller, despite his tendency to be typecast as the antihero (Take Me Out, Seascape), is fantastic in this role, from his narrow posture to his harsh mid-West accent.

The second scene is vintage LaBute: an unbalanced seduction scene between a minx of a sixteen-year-old, and a playful, charming Terry. LaBute's always been a little misogynistic, and he writes very little character into Jennifer: he objectifies her while at the same time making her equally culpable in the crime. It's no surprise that he nicknames her with the masculine "Buddy," although it's refreshing to see Lousia Krause retain such tenuous sexiness in the role. Buddy is a demonstration of LaBute's strength as a writer (natural, if not too true-to-life characters) and weakness (the same limited troupe of characters are in all of his plays). At least LaBute knows to cast movie stars: charisma overwhelms stereotype.

The one thing that's not helping LaBute is director Carolyn Cantor. Not that Cantor's a bad director--she brought Adam Rapp's twisted world to life in Essential Self-Defense--but she encourages LaBute's worst habits. What should be subtle moments have a spotlight thrust upon them by Cantor's staging, and the very last "dangling" image is a bit too tell-tale. She uses the multilevel grass and bright blue sky well to parallel the picturesque facade with the underlying rot, and her props--a windmill golf obstacle whose blades don't cover the hole, an oversize swing--elicit the desired comic effect. LaBute's words are always funny, even with "that dark cloud going on"; Cantor's staging is dulled by the moments of tragedy.

In a Dark Dark House happens to be another success for Neil LaBute: the topics are fresh, the characters are lively, and the twist still works. Molestation isn't as understandable as adultery (The Mercy Seat) or image (Fat Pig) but Frederick Weller's rough-edged Terry is a polarizing first for LaBute: an antihero, sure, but a deep one.

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