Review – In A Dark Dark House – Almeida Theatre

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Since I enjoyed Fat Pig so much, I was excited when I heard Neil LaBute’s newest play was making its European debut at the Almeida. His writing is very much focused on the American now – not so much the historical moment we find ourselves in as the psychological landscape we live in. I’m not sure if the way I’m wired inside is similar to the English that I live among, but I think it’s different, and I think LaBute gets it. Pinter, I think, is the playwright of the English psyche – a lot of his mysteries can only be understood by those who live here. LaBute seems to understand the lies Americans tell themselves about what they feel and what is important to them, about how they want to be and how they actually act, and about how the react when they realize (or have pointed out) these contradictions. I also very much like his dialogue – it very much sounds appropriate for now, rather than being written in some “high theater” style.

In a Dark Dark House is well suited to the elements I like of his style. The story is about two brothers dealing with some very bad elements of their childhood as well as their relationship with each other. The younger brother Drew (Steven Mackintosh) has made enough of a wreck of his life that he’s wound up at a nut farm/”rehab” facility after a major car crash; he’s asked his estranged elder sibling Terry (David Morrissey) to come and help with his therapy. This all seems pretty pedestrian, even given the serious lack of empathy between the two brothers. In fact, it seems like it’s all going to blow up and the play is going to end rather quickly (though I had no idea where it was going to go) when Terry decides he’s just had enough of his brother’s game-playing bullshit and gets ready to storm of the stage and just leave him to his own devices (and likely jail sentence) when suddenly it comes out what the therapy session is really dealing with; not parental abandonment, not serious physical abuse (at the hands of their father), but child sexual abuse, and Terry’s possible role in allowing this to happen to his brother.

Wow. Suddenly I was sitting up on the edge of my seat. This is not really a topic I’ve seen dealt with much in the theater, and I’ve never seen it handled particularly well. But the effect sexual abuse has in later years on the adults who were its victims, and the particularly squirrely convolutions it has on the relationships between two people who both suffered it at the hands of the same person and then spend years not talking about it to each other … that was really something. I became entirely lost in the dialogue and really focused on the play, quite an achievement given the condition I was in (sleep dep and burnt out from work).

Oddly, it was the second scene that really had me on edge and was also the strongest one of the night. Terry left his brother as an avenging angel out to find the person who screwed them both up. Incongruously, he winds up on a miniature golf course, where Jennifer (Kira Sternbach) is waving her rather underclad (and well toned) bum at the audience while she cleans up the ball tubes (the conversational innuendo in this scene was pretty heavy, so please don’t blame it on me!). This 15 year old, who is rather heavily flirting with Terry, turns out to be … the daughter of the man who sexually abused him and his brother.

Really, just where was it all going to go? As the scene ended, with the tension ratcheted up so high I could almost not bear to watch any more, I had NO idea what the playwright was going to choose to do. We’d already done childhood sexual molestation – did we have any more evils to hit?

The final scene is at Drew’s fancy house; he’s made it out of rehab and is celebrating. Then his brother Terry shows up to tell him about what he’s been up to, and … well, let’s say it doesn’t go well. I enjoyed it, though – it was a good evening out and a peach at 1:45 running time with no interval (forgive me but I was exhausted and the Almeida is a long trek from my house), and I felt well rewarded for trusting to an author I enjoyed to provide me with an energizing and provocative (in ever so many ways) night at the theater.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, December 4th, 2008. In a Dark House runs through January 17th.)

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