You've got to hand it to Neil LaBute: He listens to his critics. With Wrecks, which just opened at the Public Theater's Anspacher Theater, he's responded to the criticism about the misogyny and exploitative content of his plays by writing one about nothing more than a man's love for a woman.
Yes, the play's full 75-minute running time is consumed by only the musings of Edward Carr as he ponders his tender, torrid, and tangled relationship with the wife he will soon bury. If he catches sight of you at the viewing of the body, expect him to regale you with epic stories about just how important his Mary Jo, 15 years his senior and an unexpected victim of cancer, was to him.
Come now, you might be thinking, can this really be all? Yes, it can. And yes, it is.
Sort of. LaBute, who wrote the vicious The Shape of the Things, the acidic Fat Pig, and the burrowingly unsettling This Is How It Goes - respectively concerning self-identity in relationships, being overweight in relationships, and implicit racism in relationships - can't zone out of his inner Outer Limits that easily. He's ironed a wrinkle into Wrecks, which won't much shock anyone familiar with the balance of his previous stage efforts.
If it doesn't subvert the central idea of Edward's love for Mary Jo, it does that typical LaButian thing of forcing you to reconsider most of the preceding events through a more cynical, fractured lens than you did the first time through. This is what completes and, yes, wrecks everything: Without the twist, Wrecks would be little more than an airy confessional, theatrics without theatre containing no message and making no point; with that wrench in the works, you have an honest-to-goodness play with something to say, if not one that says anything worth listening to.
For all the regal weight the twist adds, its necessary unveiling of the show's essential nature as a too-shallow meditation on love transforms the show from a departure for LaBute into just another evening where the initially curious becomes so commonplace, we might have been wading through it for centuries. As revealing the moral of it all would be revealing the twist and robbing Wrecks of any reason for being, nothing substantial will be divulged here; what's left for discussion is an overly conversational, meticulously meandering monologue often in grave danger of drowning in its own stream of consciousness.
Edward's stories - usually about his wife and children, with some digressions into the subjects of smoking or the family's business of renting classic automobiles - are all limited-scope variations on the core theme of the intoxicating powers of passion. But Edward's ramblings vary little in style or tone, and his relentless speeches about Mary Jo cost a lot of dramatic capital that LaBute - who's directed with a far lighter touch than is evident in his writing - never satisfyingly repays.
That task falls to Ed Harris, who's starring as Edward and is the only part of the play that seems carefully, originally considered. Shedding the prickly-skinned-bad-good-guy persona he so often adopts in films, Harris finds in Edward both the beating heart and wounded pride of a man who's sacrificed everything for love and now finds he no longer has a reason to live. (Not that he has to worry: He's also dying of cancer.)
Harris never dives completely into pathos, and stops short of making Edward sympathetic (which would likely be a mistake in any event), but evokes enough feeling from Edward to make emotional sense of this eight-car pileup of a man. Even the potentially deadly task of endlessly ruminating on the word "indeed," instituted as something of a running (or limping) joke, becomes for Harris a source of fuel for a man whose life has focused on little else but his wife for 30 years and now no longer knows how to direct its energies.
The primal need for emotional and physical affection, the lamentations (if not apologies) for mistakes made, and the obsession with this particular woman are all emitted from Harris's Edward with a blinding transparency that nearly compensates for the play's otherwise opaque, tedious storytelling. With this performance, Harris announces himself as a prime interpreter of LaBute, capable of assembling the messiness of nothing and reassembling it into the messiness of truth.
That's a skill LaBute is still polishing himself. While one must applaud his attempts to write a straightforward play about a relatable, human topic, a modest, clearly judged, romantic tragedy - even for one character - is one barrier he's apparently not yet fully able to broach.