Friday, June 15, 2007

In a Dark Dark House

The ultra-prolific Neil Labute has carved out a reputation as the foremost misanthrope of American theatre. His work features seemingly heartless characters who revel in their own sadomasochism, happiest in situations where they can cause immeasurable pain and suffering. For the longest time, I have defended and found much to enjoy in Labute's work, praising his sharp and focused voice even as the darkness of his plays became more and more conventional.

That praise ends with In a Dark Dark House, which is currently receiving its world premiere production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, under the auspices of Manhattan Class Company and the direction of Carolyn Cantor. This latest piece is slim and dramatically reckless, and often feels unfinished.

The drama takes place over three brief scenes, and it should be noted that if you happen to blink at any point, you might miss one of the many revelations that Labute haphazardly throws at the audience. Terry (Frederick Weller), a salt-of-the-earth midwesterner, has gone to visit his younger brother Drew (Ron Livingston) at a tony rehab where he's drying out. It turns out that Drew--a lawyer recently disbarred for shady business practices--has recovered memories of molestation in therapy, and has called his big brother in to authenticate them.

It is clear from the first moments that the two men don't get along. Even though he is dressed in a dirty bathrobe and barely speaking above a whisper, Drew's gentility shines through. Terry has taken a different path in his life; a truer path, at least to him. Their conversation when not discussing their shared past of abuse and hardship is polite but awkward, never reaching a level of intimacy you would expect from normal siblings. Labute understands this, and his early writing for the men can be thrilling. If only it were sustained throughout the entire piece.

If there is one thread that holds the work together, it is Weller's intensely vivid performance as Terry. His line readings are surly and glib with just the right dose of indignation, which are all good things in this case. Livingston tries hard but can't get over the fact that he's miscast; he's far too likable to play a calculating and manipulating leach. A third character, played appealingly by Louisa Krause, is introduced in the second scene, but it's hardly worth mentioning. She's drawn so thin that you begin to forget about her while she's still in plain view (a major problem, since Labute goes on to fashion her into a major plot device).

Carolyn Cantor's unsteady direction is also problematic; her style of cartoonish realism that served Essential Self-Defense so well only accentuates the textual flaws here. It may be time for Labute to take a break, or at least a breather: as his twists become more and more predictable, his work is becoming less and less watchable, and even longtime fans like myself are considering turning away. In the meantime, find someone to revive bash.

Tickets: Ticket Central
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street
New York, NY 10014
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission
Through July 7

Cameron Kelsall is a guest reviewer for this blog. He also runs the blog Theatre Snobbery at its Finest, which can be read at

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