Bring the Pain

Neil LaBute's theater of cruelty

What a pity that we don't have cage matches for playwrights. The notion is not as silly as it sounds. I can easily imagine Eric Bogosian and David Mamet squaring off in the ring, strutting and flexing their muscles in brightly colored tights and capes as the announcer asks if they are ready to rumble. Perhaps because theater has such a delicate, rarified reputation, theater professionals sometimes seem ready to compensate with an overabundance of testosterone, even if they're women. I would not have wished to look sideways at Sarah Bernhardt in a bar for fear of spitting teeth as a result. Come to think of it, I can say the same thing about Sandra Bernhardt.

But it's a dangerous proposition to remove somebody from the stage and place them in a wrestling ring: Remember what happened with Andy Kaufman? Theater folk seem to take the florid, melodramatic possibilities of wrestling villainy too closely to heart. Were we to give playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute a Lucha Libre wrestling mask and pit him off against, say, Wendy Wasserstein, he wouldn't go longer than 20 seconds without rubbing glass in her eyes, beating her with a metal folding chair, and screaming invectives at the audience in order to incite them toward violence. He's mean like that.

I just want you to hurt like I do: Anthony Paul in Neil LaBute's Bash
I just want you to hurt like I do: Anthony Paul in Neil LaBute's Bash

LaBute was onstage as a performer during the 1991 New York run of his play Filthy Talk for Troubled Times, and was delighted at the audience's rage when one of his characters launched into a long, homophobic tirade--they literally called for LaBute's blood. "I had that feeling of wanting to say, 'Let's find him and get him! Let's get our torches and go downstairs--I think I saw him around here somewhere!'" LaBute told an interviewer. How many people wish to participate in their own lynching? As I said, mean.

So we might not be surprised that his collection of one-act plays, appropriately titled Bash (currently mounted by the Balance Theatre Project at the Bryant-Lake Bowl), similarly contains a homophobic monologue. Titled "A Gaggle of Saints," it tells of a day trip made by a group of upper-crust East Coast college students to Manhattan that culminates in a graphic gay bashing in Central Park, described by a boyfriend and girlfriend (Casey Greig and Erika Eklund) with all the gaudy details of Jesse Ventura providing color commentary for the XFL. LaBute distances himself from the characters here, making them figures of fun by relentlessly comparing their experiences to banal television shows and movies.

It's useful to remember, though, that LaBute once explained his decision to make the besieged female lead of In the Company of Men hearing-impaired with the words I think deaf people are funny. ("I've tried that joke a couple of more times, just to see if I can actually get a laugh from it," he confessed of his explanation. "So far, no good.") In this vein, LaBute somehow always manages to convey the sense that his abusive scripts are meant to be funny. It's hard to put a finger on it, but there it is, a fiendish laugh hiding between the lines of his dialogue, a constant, alarming sense that he looks at human cruelty and misery as something of a goof.

He can be grand about it: The two other one-acts are titled "Iphigenia in Orem" and "Medea Redux," and one character, played here as though she were somewhat brain-addled by Nancy Ruyle, explicitly makes reference to Euripides. It's a clever enough conceit. The "Iphigenia" story, for example, is a drunken confession in which a businessman (Anthony Paul) suddenly tells a total stranger how he allowed his baby daughter to suffocate under a mass of blankets in order to earn sympathy from his co-workers during a period of layoffs. How Greek, how tragic, how like Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter so that the becalmed Greek navy could sail onward to Troy! Except that LaBute builds this scene with the techniques of a comedian, adding grisly irony upon grisly irony until it seems that he wishes the audience to begin gibbering with hysterical laughter.

To summarize: LaBute has no sympathy for his characters, nor for the stories they tell, but instead smirks at both. Some audiences enjoy this, by the way: LaBute's films have earned him a dedicated, if puzzling, audience, many of whom seem to feel that LaBute is a courageous author telling painful truths bravely. I think he's a mean old man.

 

I also wanted to call for LaBute's blood at this production, which, in retrospect, is really more Roman than Greek. But I don't begrudge the theater company their attempt to produce the play. The Balance Theatre Project is one of those bold upstart companies with a lot going for them: a desire to do earnest, tough little plays; a dynamite Web page (members.aol.com/balancetheatre); and a cast of scruffy, eager, talented young performers. Were this the early Eighties, they would be producing Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson plays; were this the Sixties they would be trying their hand at Pirandello and Brecht. But because it is the aughts they turn to LaBute, and get glass in their eyes for their efforts. But I do not wonder why they chose LaBute, as Bash is the ideal combination of gritty dramaturgy, celebrity authorship, and fantastic cheapness (the whole set consists of two chairs and a table) required by companies with shallow pockets.

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