a theatre, film & pop culture review
Neil LaBute is nasty.
His characters are harsh, cruel, at times entirely despicable, and the dramatic situations don’t exactly bring out the best in them. There’s nothing pleasant about a Neil LaBute play and everyone who’s read or seen one would agree.
When you hear something like the above, it makes you want to see it — and like it — even more. And boy, did I want to like LaBute. Clearly the guy’s got chutzpah, and I wanted to know what all this huffing and puffing was about — especially when it came from folks who, in their next breaths, would spout the praises of Mamet or Shepherd. I mean, really.
Which is why one hot, sticky night last summer, stuck in Times Square with not a reasonably priced Broadway show in sight, I hopped on the train and headed to Greenwich Village where I promptly bought a $15 tkt, settled into the cozy MCC Theater, and gleefully waited for what I could only hope was to be a brutal drama full of vicious characters throwing snarky daggers of dialogue at one another.
In a Dark, Dark House is aptly titled. Abuse can’t be construed as a light subject matter no matter how you spin it, and LaBute took full advantage of that, creating both complex and extraordinarily difficult – in both senses of the word – characters. I wasn’t bothered by the fact that I never took a liking to any of the three presented; rather I was intrigued by their stories – how they came to be so hard and unsympathetic and how their relationships worked, especially the maliciously dismissive manner in which the brothers spoke and responded to each other. If the play didn’t excuse their actions, at least it offered us reasons behind their behavior.
Maybe it’s because I’ve never seen it, but The Shape of Things wasn’t as effective in its own endeavor to discuss relationships via art. I knew the plot before reading it, and though that may have taken away a bit of the ending’s shock value, it doesn’t account for my frustration while reading it.
Evelyn, an MFA art student, is working on her thesis project when she meets Adam, a schlubby college student by day, security guard at the local art museum by night. The relationship dynamic is clear from the start: the pretentious hardass would-be Picasso is going to have meek, malleable Adam wrapped around her not-so-dainty pinky in no time. And sure enough she does: she thinks he’d look cuter with shorter hair, so he cuts it. That 90s reject of a corduroy jacket that he loves so much? Good Will, baby. Then there’s that extra bit of flesh on the tip of his nose…Yep, he sure does go under the knife for her.
Of course, we’re talking about relationships here. How far would you go for someone you love? How much would you change about yourself? Are there limits? Adam doesn’t think so. Adam goes all the way. And in the end, he pays for it.
Sounds a little too obvious, right? And it is. Even more laborious is that, woven in and around all of these horrid makeover scenarios is the inevitable question: what is art? Can Evelyn’s transformation of Adam be considered art? (Oh yes, my friends, back to philosophizing grad school, we go). I do believe there was a statement declaring (and I’m paraphrasing here): “When Picasso took a shit, he didn’t call it a sculpture. He knew the difference.” I know the difference, too, Mr. LaBute, and your play is not quite the latter.
The Shape isn’t totally off though. All the ingredients are there: the characters are alive and vivid (in all their wretchedness and crippling insecurity), the dialogue is quick to the cut and starkly real. There’s something about LaBute’s use of language that always manages to grab you from the start and sucks you in until the very end: it’s sparse, but succinct, and very much American. The way his characters never quite manage to finish a spoken thought — how they actually avoid speaking, because as soon as they do, all that pent up emotion comes pouring out of them in torrents of bitterness and anger. It’s a powerful device, but certainly one that has the ability to alienate just as many as many as it has struck a chord with. And with Shape, LaBute doesn’t quite seem to hit his stride. It’s all too…Evelyn…so to speak. Evelyn’s aloofness and elitism — extended to her cruel judgement and treatment of Adam’s friends who she deems uncultured and lacking — doesn’t just define her, it defines the play. The art speak is convoluted and elite in its own right — LaBute, for example, abuses Oscar Wilde — not only his multitudinous thoughts on art (which are, in fact, more apt than any play which quotes them), but his tragic life as well. Too often, the play, like the artist Evelyn herself, feels like it’s trying to prove itself. To whom exactly, I’m not sure, but the result — much like Adam and Eve(lyn)’s ending — is the poorer for it.