Those who prefer their plays tied up in nice, tidy packages by the final curtain should be warned that Neil LaBute's latest, This Is How It Goes at the Public Theater, provides no such satisfaction. If that's understandable because the things LaBute focuses on - bigotry of many sorts being the most prominent - have few easy answers, this time the caustic playwright might be too cryptic for his own good.
One of the stage and screen's most gloriously maverick writers, LaBute isn't afraid to address hard issues in hard ways, frequently centering on the complicated - and usually brutal - interplay between the sexes. (His most recent play, Fat Pig, about a thin man's romance with an overweight woman, played Off-Broadway earlier this season.) Here, though, LaBute is investigating slightly more experimental territory, playing games with truth, recollection, and responsibility that recall (in style if not substance) those in Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon.
Yet the lack of a single, clear target prevents This Is How It Goes from having the same visceral dramatic impact. Too often, LaBute the story-spinner is sparring with LaBute the dramatist, and though the bout is under the expert refereeing of director George C. Wolfe, the outcome at the end of this 90-minute fight is every bit as inconclusive as the play itself.
It's not so much that LaBute hasn't named his lead character - in the Playbill, he's referred to simply as Man, and is played by Ben Stiller - but that one of Man's first lines is, "I think I might end up being an unreliable narrator." As this line is delivered with Stiller's trademark guy-next-door amiability, it's easy to write it off as a comic moment designed to establish the non-existent fourth wall. Instead, it proves to be a guiding philosophy for telling the story of how Man re-inserts himself into the lives of a now-married couple he knew in high school, Belinda (Amanda Peet) and Cody (Jeffrey Wright).
Judging strictly by stated events, the story is relatively straightforward: Man meets Belinda at Sears; he's looking for a place to stay, and becomes a tenant in her house; he makes an apparently off-hand racial slur to the black Cody, but wins his begrudging trust; Cody throws Man out of the house permanently several weeks later after learning how Man lost his job as a lawyer (insulting a black coworker on an airplane); Man and Cody covertly exchange words and dollars; Man and Belinda wind up married.
But what can you really believe? Man twists around and rewinds the action, constantly rewriting the story as it progresses, admitting outright that certain scenes didn't really happen the way he's presenting them to us. When Belinda gets a black eye, is it because of Cody? Why do they stay together as long as they do? Why does she eventually leave him? Is Man's racism legitimate, or only an act he puts on for some more nefarious reason?
The performers sink their teeth into these colliding conflictions. Stiller adopts a few touches of his established screen persona as a good-natured Everyman to make his forays into darker, more forbidden territory more startling, and he brings a commanding intensity to some truly ugly moments. Peet starts off tentative, but is wonderful when she finally taps into the complex depths of her character's jumbled feelings about the men in her life. Wright blends stereotype with stark individuality in raw yet winning ways.
Yet the acting, Wolfe's incisive direction, and the crisp, clean design (Riccardo Hernández did the sets, David Weiner the lights) can't completely mask a feeling of incompleteness in LaBute's structuring of the play; it's as if he's trying too hard to be difficult. His writing is too sharp, too clever to allow the ever-mounting uncertainties of his plot to grow tiresome, but when it becomes clear you can accept nothing that happens, nothing that's said at face value, Labute's gleeful game-playing diminishes somewhat in effectiveness.
John Patrick Shanley covers similar ground in his play Doubt, which opens on Broadway this week, but sets forth enough foundational truths to make his unanswerable questions even more compelling. That's what LaBute needs here, but doesn't have; it's impossible to resent Man as being an unreliable narrator, but he knows the final destination. Too often, it seems as if LaBute doesn't, as if he thinks driving around in circles first will make the final destination have more meaning than it might otherwise.
Yes, This Is How It Goes ends correctly, but unsatisfyingly; the journey's enjoyable, but it's too hard to trust LaBute enough to unquestioningly follow where he leads. He deserves credit for frankly tackling difficult subjects in such richly theatrical ways, but too much of his writing echoes a speech Man gives late in the play: "The second you start telling somebody what the truth is - how it goes - it all starts to slip away. Not, like, some lie, exactly, but close. This half-remembered version of one side 'a things. And what would the point be?"
The Public Theater