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Chicago by John Olson

This is How It Goes
Profiles Theatre

Also see John's reviews of My Fair Lady and The Little Dog Laughed

This Is How It Goes
Sean Nix and Lindsay Schmidt
Though this play doesn't neglect its author's "brand image" as a portrayer of misogyny, the third installment in Profiles' "Season of LaBute" offers more than a study of male-female relationships, exploring issues of race relations in society and the elusiveness of truth. Surprisingly for a 90-minute-long intermissionless piece (a revised version that has previously been performed only in London), this doesn't seem like too much to tackle. There is a common denominator among these themes, and in much of LaBute's work: the difficulty we humans have in connecting or simply being kind to each other given our tendencies for ruthless self-centeredness.

This is How It Goes is narrated by the unnamed "Man," apparently a late-20s or 30-ish guy who has returned to his small Midwestern hometown after leaving a career in law to pursue playwriting. He runs into Belinda, a girl on whom he had a crush (and one date) in high school. He's still interested. She seems to be, too, and may well be available as she's in a loveless marriage to Cody Phipps, the handsome son of a prosperous and powerful family a former star high school athlete who still happens to be one of the few African-Americans in this small community.

Giving Cody this degree of privilege and keeping him free of ethnic stereotyping allows the playwright to paint Cody as critically as any of his other characters. In spite of Cody's advantages, he still seems to suspect racism and prejudice in white society, and he never hesitates to use the race card when it might serve his needs. (The production's clever advertising design by Justin Siddons, in fact, is a literal "race card," with a black king on one end holding up the Ace of Spades and a white king below holding a Jackie Robinson baseball card that figures in the plot). The "Man," who may be anywhere from subtly to blatantly bigoted, knows how to use bigotry as a weapon, injecting racial stereotypes to provoke or wound Cody. For either Cody or the man, race is just another card to play in the game of control.

LaBute contends that gender is a card to be played as well. Cody uses his money and power, as well as his greater physical strength, to intimidate and control Belinda. She's not blameless, either, admitting to the Man that her attraction to Cody was largely to satisfy her desire to have the security and social acceptability of marriage into a wealthy family, while enjoying the rebellious feeling of marrying a man of a different race. Surely, she used her charms and attractiveness as a high school golden girl and cheerleader to win Cody. Her status as a white woman may or may not have made her more of a trophy bride to Cody. That's left ambiguous as a member of the only black family in town, he may not have had a lot of options for an African-American mate even if he valued black women equally to white women.

The play's many ambiguities are drawn intentionally to slow the difficulty in arriving at any sort of definitive "truth," given our challenges to remember events accurately or the impossibility of witnessing every event that may have a bearing on our relationships. A crucial scene between Cody and Belinda is told from two different perspectives: one as Belinda told it to the Man and another as the Man suspects it may have really happened. Even if complete and accurate information were available, we filter it through our own experiences and interpret it in a way suits our needs. These challenges in perception and processing of information may make it impossible to fully empathize with those of a different gender or race.

Profiles' tiny storefront theater with its seating capacity of 50 split into two sections on either side of the stage so that no one is very far from the performers offers the opportunity for a nuanced and almost cinematic style of acting that is the company's trademark. Director Darrell W. Cox excels at that in his own work as an actor and gets the same sort of performances from his cast in this play. As "The Man," Eric Burgher is entirely natural and believable. You like him enough to listen to his narration, but as the story unfolds, we begin to distrust him enough to be skeptical of his story. His character is an average guy the sort who ought to do just fine in life, but whose flaws tend to screw things up for him. Lindsay Schmidt as Belinda nicely balances the character's strength and hopefulness with her vulnerability and sadness. As Cody, Sean Nix is convincingly cruel and frightening. While Schmidt and Nix both lack the naturalism and spontaneity that Burgher possesses, they understand their characters and are able to engage us well enough.

Thad Hallstein's set design places the action in a realistic depiction of the Man's apartment, reinforcing the idea that we're witnessing the action through the Man's memory as he tells us the story. It even includes photo printouts made poster size through pieced-together 8-1/2" x 11" pages of strip malls, suggesting the landscape of this small Midwestern town.

With its density of ideas communicated so challengingly in such a short time, This is How It Goes is the theatrical equivalent of a shot of espresso. Profiles' school of acting and intimate space is a perfect way to experience LaBute's writing.

Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 7:00 p.m. through March 2 at Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway, Chicago. Tickets are available by phone, (773) 549-1815, or online at www.profilestheatre.org.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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