Up until May 8th, 2014 I could only take LaBute’s brand of cold-hearted nasty in small doses. I first heard the name “Neil LaBute” in 2008, during an acting class in the South Philly home of Bill Roudebush the prolific director and acting coach who has since moved to Florida. (Come back from Florida, Roudebush, Philadelphia misses you.) What?
Critics can take acting classes too. Week after week I would watch local actresses, Wendy Staton and Carly Bodnar, perform monologues from LaBute’s Fat Pig, and reasons to be pretty. Every week I would leave confessing to actor John D’Alonzo enroute to the Broad Street subway: “Carly and Wendy performed well, but what is with this guy, LaBute? He writes like a prick, filling his plays and films with destructive self-absorbed prigs. The fact that he is nationally celebrated playwright/screenwriter is proof that America as lost all feeling from the neck down, and cruelty is the new cool.
|Curtesy of Movieboozer.com|
After watching LaBute’s 1997 film, In the Company of Men on Netflix- A film about two executives who scheme to woo and destroy a deaf girl just because they can-I was convinced that: LaBute is a prig-asshole who writes like a sadist.
|Paul Rudd being feckless in The Shape of Things|
After watching the feckless Paul Rudd in the 2003 film version of The Shape of Things I was convinced that: LaBute is a stone cold sadist.
On May 9th, 2014, during the opening night performance of Simpatico Theatre Project production of LaBute’s In A Dark Dark House I had what alcoholics often refer to as a moment of clarity: Suddenly LaBute and his entire oeuvre littered with cruel anti-hero-bastards suddenly made sense.
|Ahren Potratz as Drew & Allen Radway as Terry. Photo curtesy of Simpatico Theatre Project|
Set Designer, Colin McIlvaine’s strips clean Walnut’s Studio 5 stage down to puritanical wood and lighting designer Jerold R. Forsythe casts sobering lights upon Drew (Ahren Potraz), a 35 year old self-medicating lawyer who finds himself disbarred and locked up in a court-appointed rehab facility after a wrecking his car in a cocaine haze and possibly his marriage with a strange woman in the passenger seat. Drew’s doctors call his estranged short-fused, 37-year old brother Terry (Allen Radway), a security guard who prefers to work nights. Drew and Terry stand face to face, brother to brother, their words overlap, and spill into each others sentences almost like they are two halves of the same conflicted brain.
I was not at all surprised to find that LaBute dedicated this play to Sam Shepard. At its core, or essence, Sympatico’s production was reminiscent of Theatre Exile’s February production of Shepard’s True West directed by Matt Pfeiffer, starring, Jeb Kreager & Brian Osborne. Sam went off to the desert to write found that he could not escape his violent alcoholic father, and came back with True West.
In A Dark, Dark House LaBute confronts his own violent possibly unmedicated bipolar father. In the preface LaBute’s internal dueling-dialogue is evident when he bravely asserts: “Did I have a bad childhood? I think so. Was I abused? As a matter of fact, yes. Is it all behind me? On a good day. I understand quite deeply what the brothers in the story are going through. I too, grew up in a house shrouded in shadow and sadness.
A psychiatric-rehab is the only place LaBute could plant these stubborn man-boy-brothers, and expect to extract an ounce of truth out of either of them.
Potratz is perfect as the ineffectual Drew, the brother wearing the hospital-issued bracelet around his wrist. He emphatic uses of the word “Dude” as an active rebellion against adulthood like a Lost Boy conducting a sit-in refusing to vacate Neverland. Although, this three-part-90 minute play is sustained entirely by Terry’s fury. Therefore the success of this Sympatico production rests largely on its Artistic Director, Radway’s shoulders, but thirty seconds in, Radway proves he has the chops to bear it.
|Mary Beth Shrader as Jennifer Photo curtesy of Simpatico Theatre Project|
On sight fifteen-year old Jennifer, portrayed by the doll-faced, snarky Mary Beth Shrader, is youth devoid of innocence, and director Harriet Power makes sure of it. Lights up on the second scene: the audience immediately gets a view of her butt on a Putt-Putt mini-golf course. (Shrader is full-clothed, but still the first thing the audience sees of Mary Beth is her tosh. Its like a cinematic-pan of her tukus, you get me? ) Apparently even the golf courses in this play adamantly refuse to grow up.
[Sympatico Theatre Project, Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5]May 7-June 1st, 2014, www.sympaticotheatre.org.