Loathsome is the word for Neil LaBute. His two movies, In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, are loathsome. His current bill of short stage works, collectively titled bash: latterday plays (LaBute doesn’t use capitals) is no less loathsome. In both movies, nice women (one of them deaf) are viciously abused by delighting men, couples do nothing but cheat and fight, men double-cross one another or brag, as one doctor did, that he had the best sex of his life gang-raping a boy in high school.
Mind you, one can have a grim, misanthropic view of the world, but are there really in it only pathetic victims and ruthless, sadistic creeps? The worst thing about labute (to accord him the spelling he deserves) is that throughout his films and plays you cannot miss the gloating tone, the smirk on the author’s face. Yet, so insensitively thrill-seeking are critics and audiences that LaBute garners rave reviews and full houses.
The three playlets in bash are monologues. In medea redux, the speaker is a young woman who at 13 was seduced by her teacher. Pregnant, she was abandoned by him, but “anyways, billie, that’s my son, billie, ‘william,’ whatever … was born… . he’s great, and umm, without getting all shitty about it, i give birth and a bunch ‘a years pass, okay?” The woman is talking into a tape recorder and also to us. Is she in a police station? In her kitchen? Or simply in the world according to LaBute?
She traces her seducer to a Phoenix school, and a correspondence develops. When Billie is 14, she takes him to meet his since married but otherwise childless father in a motel. The man loves children, we are told, and falls in love with the kid. When he leaves for a moment, the woman, as premeditated, kills her boy in his bath (Medea with a touch of Clytemnestra). Now she visualizes in tranquillity the tearful father screaming against the cosmos, although “there’s never an answer,” as she remarks and takes another puff on her cigarette.
In the second playlet, a man whose job seems threatened by downsizing lets his infant daughter asphyxiate in the hope that he will be kept on for compassionate reasons, only to find out there was no question of dismissal – it was all a practical joke by a friend of his. Iphigenia in orem (Utah) is the pretentious title.
The third and longest play comprises the parallel monologues of a pair of affianced Mormon juniors who improbably attend Catholic Boston College. They alternate telling about a big dance they drove to in New York City with two other B.C. couples. While the girls, tired, snooze in their room at the Plaza, our hero and his two male cronies wander into Central Park and follow a middle-aged homosexual into a public toilet, where they beat him to death or at least grave permanent damage. Then they return to the Plaza and resume their “normal” lives with their insipid girlfriends.
This item is called a gaggle of saints. Since all the characters are adherents of Mormonism, which LaBute converted to while on scholarship at Brigham Young University, he subtitles his opus latterday plays, with a pun on the Latter-Day Saints and our sad, postmodern world. The Mormons were good to him, so he repays them by making all his murderers Mormons.
The cheap trick LaBute uses throughout is to make his characters stupid twits whose speech is numbingly banal, awash in verbal detritus. Then, in the middle of it, there will be either some totally improbably highfalutin poeticism or some staggering enormity delivered with utter blandness. As if this weren’t enough, he doesn’t give a rap about placing his characters in a recognizable context. Where were that 13-year-old’s parents all along, during pregnancy, birthing, and after? How did she bring up Billie without the help, for fourteen years, of that supposedly child-loving teacher father? Or, in the second play, how come the male child-murderer’s wife accepts his deed without demur? Crib deaths regularly lead to dissolution of the marriage. Again, how do the gay-bashers escape scot-free, untroubled even by their conscience? Is the world full of LaButes?
You may think it poor form to give away this much plot and subvert surprise. But there are really no surprises in these works: Just imagine the worst and multiply by ten. Still, in case you can’t do the math, someone must spell out a warning. Rely on the chief critic of the Times, and you’ll read in his lengthy encomium that bash is “informed with an earnest, probing moralism as fierce as that of Nathaniel Hawthorne.”
Actually, if you want to understand LaBute, you had better seek out Dinitia Smith’s article in the Times of June 23. There you will learn about LaBute’s hatred for his truck-driver father. It surfaces in all three playlets, where fathers bring death. Even as we’re told in lip-smacking detail about the ghastly fate of the hapless homosexual, we are informed twice that he reminded the assailant of his father. But at no point is there any sense of the author’s awareness of what he is gleefully blurting out. It may be of further Freudian interest that the basher first indulges in some erotic foreplay with his victim. Also to be gleaned from this article, curiously captioned “A Filmmaker’s Faith in God, If Not in Men,” is how inarticulate and subliterate our author really is. Would any decent speaker of English say, “There is a reaction to my father in terms of the severity of my male characters”? Again, “In the past my work was mostly black… . This one broaches into the territory of beige.” To say nothing of the ignorant use of parameters for perimeters. Finally, we gather that Mrs. LaBute is a family therapist. If she can keep her spouse’s problems confined to his plays and movies, she must be a helluva good one.
To broach into the actual production, its design is suitably minimal, although Joe Mantello’s direction is at times too clever by half. In the third play, Paul Rudd overacts shamelessly, as is his wont; in the second, Ron Eldard is, except for a few minor excesses, entirely persuasive. The best work comes from Calista Flockhart, whose timings and inflections are unerringly on target, no matter what preposterous demands are inflicted on her. Still, if your reason for going is not so much relish of nastiness as wanting to see Ally McBeal in the flesh, be forewarned: There is very little flesh on dem bones.