That’s not to say you should approach the Lucille Lortel Theatre, where the play just opened, expecting something along the lines of The Comedy of Errors or True West. The world according to LaBute is never so simple, even when individual problems within it can be resolved by the common-sense realization that blood is thicker than alcohol. But like the rational, violent, and brilliantly stupid men LaBute so often chronicles, neither Terry (Frederick Weller) nor his slightly younger brother Drew (Ron Livingston) gets off that easy.
Much like LaBute’s breakthrough film, In the Company of Men, in which two friends competed for the right to emotionally destroy a deaf woman, Terry and Drew are primarily defined by the destructive relationship they share. The three decades of psychological war they’ve waged on each other, spurred in part by their abusive father, have left them particularly bruised and bloodied, almost to the point that they might wish for a woman to enter the picture and make their lives a more recognizable kind of complicated. The only woman we do meet - or rather the girl, as she’s only 16 - is Jennifer (Louisa Krause), who’s of but indirect importance in their lives.
Of more immediate concern are Drew’s habits of substance abuse: A former lawyer disbarred after an unethical business deal, Drew has landed himself in a swank rehab facility where he hopes to kick his addictions for good. But his regular counseling has apparently turned up something both men had long suppressed: sexual abuse, committed by someone they both knew, which Terry must verify to Drew’s doctors. Secrets like that, however, have a way of cascading.
LaBute has rendered their single-minded pursuits of satisfaction at any cost with his most bracing and natural language ever. Pauses, interruptions, and casual turns of phrase that alternately soothe or grate have always been crucial to his work, but have never more effectively conveyed how words and their meanings are quietly sucked out of everyday life, and what this means for the brothers, fathers, and sons forced to communicate anyway. Director Carolyn Cantor has matched LaBute rhythm for irregular rhythm, evoking tentativeness, passion, anger, and the deepest affection from lines that often only obliquely acknowledge these qualities.
All that prevents In a Dark Dark House from being the season’s first must-see play is Weller. Looking and sounding much like Shane Mungitt, the bigoted baseball player he played in Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out, his Terry rambles and ambles about as though he’s on a quail shoot while suffering from a hangover. He evinces no authority over Drew whatsoever, projecting none of the required superiority or age that would convince us of his key role as the unwilling (but hardly unable) guardian of Drew’s life.
In fairness, Weller was a late replacement for Jason Patric, who exited the production before previews began. But in any play powered by the dynamism of two sparring partners, a single weak link all but ensures a meltdown. Weller’s no stranger to LaBute - he originated a role in The Shape of Things - but is uncomfortably located around this crackling fire of deception and uneasy redemption.
Livingston, best known for starring in the cult film Office Space, is at home every moment, bringing just the right wounded and wounding off-handedness to a man who hurts others without a second thought. His fear and anguish become yours as he describes, in carefully glancing detail, the horrors he suffered as a boy; later on, when he approaches a still-darker place, he injects creepy doses of comedy that warn (or remind) you that perhaps not everything can or should be taken at face value. Krause brings a satisfying spunk to Jennifer, but can do only so much to ignite her: She’s little more than a pawn in a game being played by two very powerful men.
Some might scoff at this, seeing her as just the latest female victim inhabiting the more brutal corners LaBute’s work. But that’s not the case. One of the underlying messages of In a Dark Dark House is that a man’s feelings for others are suspect, if not outright nonexistent, until he learns to know and love himself. Making that journey as engrossing as LaBute has here requires a woman to stand by while the men sort themselves out. But taking the play to the next, transcendent level requires a complete cast capable of meeting the demands of the demanding, and devastatingly real, people LaBute has created - if that level is within reach, it has not been attained.
In a Dark, Dark House