Playwright-director Neil LaBute generally comes in one flavor — bitterly misanthropic — but his works can be divided between the nasty/grumpy variety and the exhilarating and even moral.
His dyspeptic ensemble film Your Friends and Neighbors and the designed-to-humiliate Fat Pig are LaBute on autopilot: Men and women engage in nihilistic emotional power plays, devastate one another for the sport of it, and confess — sometimes with contented smiles — the basest kinds of motives. It all occasionally feels dispiriting and a little too easy, but LaBute defends his scorched-earth approach as a return to the lost concept of catharsis: dragging his performers through the mud (and, implicitly, the audience through its own) until we hopefully come to feel purged and more vigilant about the heart’s dark potential. His most recent play, Wrecks, debuted last year in New York. A one-man show starring the great Ed Harris, it earned lavish plaudits for Harris’ performance as a chain-smoking recent widower recounting his intensely loving relationship with his late wife at her funeral. Here was a sympathetic, self-deprecating, tender-hearted Neil LaBute character. Here was progress! But no. Toward the end comes a LaButian twist that, true to form, is too horrible — and savagely Oedipal — to relate here.
That’s OK, though, because a local theater company is already staging another LaBute piece that is quite savage enough, thank you. What Amphibian Productions’ This Is How It Goes does explosively, through heavy doses of deliberately racist and sexist language, is examine how, through the shifting perception of memory, we rationalize away our machinations if we believe the end result has a greater good. Director Jaime Castaneda has directed the trio of actors here to find authentic moments of humor amid the vitriol, and, damn, does the audience ever need the release. The play is told from the point of view of Man (Evan Mueller, equal parts disarming and repulsive), an ex-corporate lawyer and recent divorcé who returns to his Midwestern hometown to regain his bearings and write a play. He meets Woman (the alluringly vindictive Elizabeth Kopitke), whom he’d admired from afar in high school. He was the fat kid with the snarky sense of humor; she was the cheerleader from the respectable, demanding family. Man is startled to learn that Woman has married the school’s star athlete Cody (Shane Taylor, a virtuoso at playing tightly wound), who occasionally tormented him in PE. Man is mostly surprised because Cody is African-American. The three become friends and finally fellow tormentors, as Man aims to steal Woman from Cody and use any advantage of class and race to do it.
In the process (of what some would say is boilerplate LaBute), This Is How It Goes discomfits us with the petty reasons behind some of our most important life decisions. Woman married Cody because she relishes the disapproving glances she gets from fellow Wal-Mart shoppers as she carts along her two mixed-race children — it’s the ultimate act of defiance toward a community that thought it had her life neatly planned for her. Cody married Woman because his own experiences as a black man in a predominantly white town have dragged him into a vicious cycle in which he almost needs to stoke the racist attitudes he knows are there. In other words, he needs to continually feed his own bitterness. (Man complains that Cody constantly plays the race card, or, as he puts it “the ace of spades,” one of the milder epithets in the show’s dialogue.)
Many theatergoers likely will acknowledge the riveting performances in Amphibian’s show and still loathe the play. Because LaBute has obsessively tilled the same soil throughout his career — all human beings are a lot shittier than they really want to admit — it’s tough to say why one of his pieces works and another doesn’t. This DELETE finds great resonance in the primary theme of how memory transforms and recreates reality. Mueller as Man directly addresses the audience: He makes it clear that the play he is writing is based on “real” events but that he has embellished parts of it for dramatic purposes, so we’re never quite sure if what we are seeing is the way it actually happened. One scene is played two different ways. In the first version, Cody strikes his wife in the face after an argument; in the second, he lovingly massages her feet as he quiets her fears that he might be having an affair. “The way it actually happened” often depends on the version of events that Man wants to be true. As the title implies, This Is How It Goes is about the stories people tell to make their own decisions sound moral, or sympathetic, or at least justified. If you’re up for LaBute’s bruising invitation, it’s a chance for a pretty rigorous personal moral inventory.-Jimmy Fowler
This Is How It Goes
Thru Aug 5 at TCU’s Hays Theatre, 2800 S University Dr at W Cantey, FW. $10-20.