The more Neil LaBute writes, the less he has to show for it. That’s too bad, because he’s getting plays produced these days the way other people get haircuts. After seeing nearly a decade of his steady stage and film work, we generally know where a LaBute play is heading, and we can sometimes guess how it’ll get there. And I’m beginning to wonder if that’s all we’ll ever see.
In Some Girl(s), his new play at MCC, an unnamed Guy on the brink of marriage sets out to reconnect with a few ex-girlfriends. This being a LaBute play, the Guy is a prick. When his former high-school sweetheart turns up in his hotel room—all the meetings take place in hotel rooms—she tells him he looks great. “And you look … lovely,” he replies, attempting a smile.
Lines like that have kept me from giving up on LaBute, no matter how much his plays leave me cold. Again and again he’s shown that he’s got a diabolically precise ear for dialogue, from bash, the unnerving trio of one-acts that kicked off his stage career in 1999, where characters hide foul deeds behind banal modern lingo, right up to that ellipsis, which shows acute sensitivity to what people say even when they don’t say anything.
Yet even when they’ve got compelling moments—and Jo Bonney’s generally sharp production has its share—his plays never seem to amount to much. At this point, the primary culprit is repetition. For nearly a decade, LaBute has made it his profession to chronicle, over and over, the shoddy, selfish things men do. (It’s almost always men.) Fat Pig, last year’s play, showed men to be unredeemably spineless and shallow, unable to accept the love of a plus-size woman in the face of teasing. In the new play, the Guy (played by Eric McCormack, competently handsome as a skirt-chaser; the post–Will & Grace rebranding is quick out of the blocks) proves casually sadistic. He emotionally torments his first girlfriend (Brooke Smith), and manipulates the second (Judy Reyes), as when he seems to rekindle some affection with her then offhandedly mentions he never cared about her at all. By now, this behavior is immediately recognizable as something out of a Neil LaBute play.
No matter how old it seems, LaBute’s cruelty remains acutely observed; you can’t help squirming. This time, there’s even some agreeably unexpected table-turning, compliments of an older married woman with whom he had an affair. The scene is hampered only by the casting of yet another TV star, Fran Drescher, who seems awfully awkward up there and whose voice—well, you know the voice.
But however finely wrought the cruelty might be, it doesn’t resonate. LaBute tends to reach for the small story, the individual iniquity. His characters treat each other viciously, but not in a way that illuminates a larger social concern. His specific attempts to tackle a broader subject, for instance This Is How It Goes, about racism in the ’burbs, or The Mercy Seat, about selfishness on 9/11, merely flailed. In this play, an attempt to link the cruelty that men show to women with the foul deeds of tyrants and warring states seems particularly facile. Contrast this with the way violence indicts a society in David Mamet’s plays, or in Theater for a New Audience’s recent revival of Howard Brenton’s unrelenting ex-marriage drama Sore Throats. I’m not saying that only public-minded playwrights can succeed (though it would help), rather that the specific shortcoming of LaBute’s writing is a certain weightlessness, one that some impulse to address the larger world might solve.
What he lacks in big ideas, LaBute tries to make up in tricksy plot twists. When In the Company of Men ended with a Keyser Söze–ish revelation of one character’s foulness, the brutal underscoring of the film’s themes of selfishness and deception seemed inspired. When, in The Shape of Things, a hot girl seems to fall for a dorky guy, only to reveal at the end she’s been using him for an art project, it seemed merely clever. Now, when the Guy reveals a surprise about himself late in this play, it feels self-parodic. (I don’t want to reveal the surprise, but the road to hell is paved with Vanity Fair contracts.)
Until that point, the last scene actually has some things going for it—the kinds of virtues that make me continue to think that LaBute may be capable of lasting achievement. For once, the Guy appears to meet his match in Bobbi (played by Maura Tierney, who’s nearly as awkward physically as Drescher, but gorgeous-voiced—she practically sings the role). There seems to be a possibility of real affection here, a compelling development for the story. But then LaBute pulls the rug out from under him, her, and us. Just when I was about to congratulate him for his keen appreciation of complex male thinking, he reveals that a silly hidden motivation has been at work for the Guy all along. It’s a straight sucker punch.
Can our favorite angry Mormon playwright break out of his rut? Neil LaBute’s new movie, set for release in September, is a remake of the 1973 cult horror favorite The Wicker Man. Starring Nicolas Cage as a detective who stumbles on a neo-pagan cult, it looks like a radical departure for this chronicler of nasty battles of the sexes (not to mention yet another Hollywood horror remake). But look closer and you’ll find some distinctly LaButean touches. Like the fact that the cultists, living on a remote island off Washington State, are women who ritually cut out the tongues of their men.
By Neil LaBute. Lucille Lortel Theatre. Through July 8.