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The Break of Noon

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

David Duchovny with Amanda Peet.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Faith does not come easy to anyone, but Neil LaBute's intricate and thoughtful new play, The Break of Noon, which MCC is presenting at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, asks whether the converted have it roughest of all. After all, what right does a sinful man have to claim God's grace just because he witnessed a tragedy firsthand? And what obligation, if any, does the rest of the world have to accept him? Shouldn't the bleaching of a seriously soiled soul be enough for everyone?

Given the playwright, it's not surprising that the answer is "No, but." When LaBute isn't concerning himself with the deeply contentious ways men and women meet and mingle—and often, even when he is—he's exploring humanity's own relationship with good and evil, and the many colors of morality that may be found along that spectrum. Rarely, however, does he address them as he does here: nakedly, cynically, and honestly, as though he believes and distrusts every possibility he lays out.

You'll feel very much the same yourself as the play unfolds. The opening scene reveals John Smith (David Duchovny), whose name aptly describes his thorough ordinariness, under interrogation at a police station. Bright white light glaring on his face, drowning out the rest of the world, he explains—his voice cracking, his eyes forever on the verge of tears—what he experienced: an unremarkable noon at his high-rise office building. The elevator doors opened and a gun-wielding man emerged to shoot at and eventually kill everyone he saw before turning the gun on himself. John was, for no reason he can define, the sole survivor.

Because John made it out alive, and because he's positive that God came down, spoke to him, and marked him as special, John has decided to put aside his past immorality. He will not only lead a holy life, but he'll encourage others to do the same, to use his fame to spread The Message he feels will change everyone's life just as it's changed his. And that photo he took inside the office during the shooting, part bloody, part salacious, all raw horror in its delicate composition, will help him if he sells it, on his lawyer's advice, for the enormous price it will command. Won't everyone understand because it's for a good cause?

Thus fall the first strand of LaBute's intriguing web of possibility, suggesting that either John isn't so changed after all, or is at least finding that doing the correct thing is far more difficult than he could have imagined. After seeing his lawyer (a sturdy John Earl Jelks), he meets with his ex-wife (Amanda Peet); a skeptical TV talk-show host (Tracee Chimo); a former affair, who happens to be his wife's cousin (Peet); a young prostitute (Chimo) whose mother worked at John's office; and finally a detective (Jelks) who isn't convinced John's story adds up. Each encounter casts new doubt on John's words, motives, and especially history, leaving you to wonder if any of this is legitimate.

David Duchovny with Tracee Chimo.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Up until the final scene depicting John's ultimate societal role—and perhaps even beyond—you won't know for sure. LaBute throws enough evidence out there that John could easily be utterly sincere, a total fraud, or even wandering purgatory as a victim of the shooting his soul only imagines he survived. If you're looking for specific answers, you might as well look elsewhere. In many of his other works, including his superb reasons to be pretty last year, he's provided clearer resolutions and tidier dramaturgy; you have to work for (and extrapolate on) everything he gives you, and it won't be enough for everyone.

What he does offer, and what director Jo Bonney has staged with impressive clarity on Neil Patel's stark set and beneath David Weiner's haunting lights, is a fascinating glimpse into how America perceives religion and religious people, and whether we've lost our ability to be moved to our spirit. Duchovny is interesting but flawed casting, coming across more as a frozen sophisticate than a man transformed from his heart outward. But what he does right is demonstrate the conflicting angles of John's personality, being outraged one moment and contrite the next, as if he has lost all inability to tell such feelings apart. You believe Duchovny intellectually, just not emotionally.

There are no such problems with Peet and Chimo, who are nothing short of miraculous as four women of enormous importance to John. Peet is unrecognizable in her roles as John's wife and her cousin, the former a sweet, sacrificial suburban awash in patient frustration tested by a decade of his betrayals; the latter a younger, spicier, and less forgiving version of the ideal woman John knows now he should never have had. Chimo, who in the wake of Circle Mirror Transformation and Bachelorette is becoming one of New York's most valuable character actresses, is hilarious as the bulletproof and condescending host (think Meredith Vieira crossed with Joy Behar) and heart-stopping as the hooker John literally forces to find absolution kneeling on the floor of a cheap hotel.

That scene, perhaps more than any other, underscores that John is not as pure as he'd like to be, and that his intentions—if sometimes (dreadfully) misguided—are not always bad. He is nothing more than a man who's been told he is, and can be, something more, and is struggling to prove it to others as well as himself. Personal identity politics are about as LaButian a subject as you can find, and their treatment here anchors The Break of Noon in the uncomfortable reality that what you say, what you do, and what you believe are all inextricably interlinked. You can't change one without changing the others, and there's no way to tell whether your attempts will lead to triumph, tragedy, or—as apparently the case with John—both.

The Break of Noon
Through December 22
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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