Posts Tagged ‘Neil LaBute’

Review – Some Girls – Buckland Theater Company at Park Theater

July 24, 2016

I’ve been watching Neil LaBute plays since 2008, when I first saw one in the form of Fat Pig at the Comedy Theater. His use of naturalistic language and creation of characters that were fully believable – and extremely American – was a joy for me to see. People I recognized on stage, dealing with situations that seemed to be familiar and realistic – now that’s what I like! I’ve had the opportunity now to watch his style evolving, but I didn’t hesitate to take up TheatreBloggers.co.uk on an offer for a visit to see his 2005 show Some Girls and a Q&A with the director and cast afterwards.

The plot seems very thin on the surface: a man (never named, called “Guy” in the script, played by Charlie Dorfman) flies to several cities he lived in in the past to have visits with his exes, for the approximate purpose of setting things right with them. On the way, we meet Sam (Elly Condron), Tyler (Roxanne Pallett), Lindsay (Carolyn Backhouse), and Bobbi (Barley Stenson). The unifying theme in their relationships is that this guy walked out on them and never spoke to them again; for some reason, all of them have decided to take him up on his offer to meet up and hash things out years later.

Elly Condron (Sam) in Buckland Theatre Company's Some Girl(s) at Park Theatre. Credit Claire Bilyard

Elly Condron (Sam) in Buckland Theatre Company’s Some Girl(s) at Park Theatre. Credit Claire Bilyard

While we’re meant to buy into this situation, I, for one, never felt like it added up. The guy seems to want something, yet be incapable of articulating it; the women only get about 20 minutes each in which to develop their characters and aren’t able to get very deep. Still, the actresses use their skill with movement to flesh out their characters and made me believe there is more to them than we get to see; but the same isn’t true of the guy. He is stiff and says little and tends to have a bit of a wheedling, weasley smile on his face; but I couldn’t believe there was much else underneath it. Even if he is ultimately only driven by his ego and his desire to do things for himself, that, as a character trait, is something I am able to believe in; but it’s not in Dorfman’s interpretation of the character and there wasn’t nearly enough else that he did or said to make him be anything more substantial. I ended feeling like everything was a bit of a set up for a sitcom style joke, and that’s really not what I go to the theater for. I want Ibsenesque characters that I walk out of the theater talking about as if I’ve known them for years; I imagine LaBute had the opportunity to create a piece using David Schwimmer as a character and built the role around him, without worrying about three dimensionality. In short, the script needs more to it, and because of this I would not consisider Some Girls a particularly good night out.

However: I’d like to take a brief break to discuss the question of “misogyny in Neil LaBute’s plays.” It keeps coming up that he’s a misogynist: women in his plays are judged by their looks and frequently ill treated by the men in their lives. Is LaBute misogynistic? Are his plays misogynistic? I have to say, as a second wave feminist and hardcore theater goer, this is an extremely specious argument. Essentially, it’s saying that a playwright who writes about Jack the Ripper must be a murderer himself. LaBute creates characters, characters which are wholly based in 21st century (and in America). We live in a world in which, it’s true, women are judged on their appearances. Even if you are a child, you’re treated better if you’re pretty than if you’re not. LaBute does more for us by showing us the reality of the world we live in – in which pretty women are treated better by society than ugly ones, in which “fat” is treated as a moral shortcoming, in which men are not always nice to women and women can be angry and violent – than he would if he wrote plays in which he tried to pretend that things aren’t as they are. 100 years later, Shaw’s plays show a world in which getting divorced was a one way ticket to social exclusion (The Philanderer), but his plays would have been nonsensical if he tried to pretend this wasn’t a reality. We live in a world in which women aren’t treated the same as men. Holding up a mirror to that world is not misogynistic: it’s good writing, even if we don’t like what we see reflected at us.

(This review is for a performance that took place the night of July 21, 2016. It continues through August 6th.)

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Mini-review – Reasons To Be Happy – Hampstead Theater

April 21, 2016

Since I enjoy Neil LaBute and had seen Reasons to be Pretty five years ago, it was a natural that I would make it to the Hampstead for his new play, Reasons to be Happy. It’s an update on the life of the four protagonists of Pretty, but something’s changed: LaBute’s energy has evaporated.

As a story, this show is almost as bland as a sitcom, but at the length of a rom com. The plebian nature of three of the protagonists – a hairdresser, a delivery driver, and a low-level manager at a “plant” – are as forward as they were before: they mock reading, worship sports, and dismiss both foreign cuisines and foreign cultures as equally weird and unnecessary. In fact, they’re so lowbrow that it’s a cause for comedy: certainly, when the one slightly educated character, Greg (Tom Burke), is asked, while holding a copy of something by Steinbeck, “Don’t you every read anything good?” the audience had a real laugh about it. I was nearly offended by LaBute’s slamming of the working class; it was barely forgivable because of his own nationality, but left me alternatingly cringing and wanting to run around apologizing to everyone in the audience.

With a bland plot interrupted by a nearly predictable surprise, we’re left primarily to enjoy the characters, who sadly suffer from LaBute’s failure to create more of a difference from the two female protagonists. Their embodiment of the nature of female friends in America is genuinely touching (as are Greg and Kent – Warren Brown – on the masculine side), but with Carly (Robyn Addison) and Steph (Lauren O’Neil) both blonde and slim, it became difficult to tell who was the violent one and who the pretty one (since this seemed to be the defining nature of each of their characters). All of the actors themselves seemed to be struggling with what to do with their characters as well, and the early scenes – late in the run – seemed clunky in a way that shouldn’t have happened if the actors really got who they were inhabiting. So … I found it uncompelling, despite the fact that the “big message” at the end of the play was one I agreed with. Overall, this seems a play well suited the Hampstead’s history of programming entertaining, unchallenging work that leave you with a few warm fuzzies but not a lot else at the end (other than the desire to pick up a few more good books).

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday April 13, 2016. It continues through April 23rd.)

Review – Autobahn – Kings Head Theater

August 31, 2014

I’ve been a fan of Neil LaBute for some years now, and when a chance came up to get reviewers comps to see the London debut of his short play cycle Autobahn, I was all over it. New job leaving me too tired to go out? Fie, I say, I will survive!

And yet, even with a 7:15 start time and seven playlets tucked inside its two hours, Autobahn struggled to keep my attention. I struggled especially with the ones that were essentially monologues with an audience: “funny,” a young girl (Zoe Swenson-Graham) talking to her mother (Sharon Maughan) as she drives the girl away from rehab and back to normal life, struggled to become interesting – her own lack of awareness of how much she was monopolizing the conversation and how little she had to say left me empathizing with the mother. Later on, “long division,” which had one man ranting at the other about how incredibly unjust it was that his friend’s ex had kept his video game player, seemed to be struggling for a reason to exist. I couldn’t understand why the silent member of these two parties didn’t just stop the car and get out.

Much more interesting were the skits in which the characters were engaged in conversation. I was quite caught up with the unspoken violence underneath “bench seat,” “road trip,” and “autobahn,” where we were merely given snippets of what had happened to bring the characters to the point we joined them and then plenty of time to watch the story spin out, leaving us wondering when the explosion would happen. (In all cases, we never get to what seems to be the “inevitable” violence – a relief, really.) My favorite, though, was “merge,” in which a man (Henry Everett) and a woman (Maughan again) try to work out just exactly what happened to the woman when some men broke into her hotel. It reminded me of Rashomon – just what version of reality is the real reality?

While the cast was uniformly good at creating substantially different characters without even the benefit of a change of scenery (everything took place in the front seat of an American automobile), I have to give special credit to Zoe Swenson-Graham, who was fully believable as a semi-psychotic small town sweetheart and as a fairly innocent teenager with a violent past (and possibly a violent future) to deal with. It was hard not to get caught up in the stories she was representing, but unfortunately they were whisked away and replaced with less interesting ones. I’m glad I got to catch up with some shorter works by LaBute, but unfortunately I ran out of gas long before it did.

(This review is for the opening night performance, which took place on Friday, August28, 2014. It runs through September 20th.)

Review – Reasons to Be Pretty – Almeida Theater

November 28, 2011

Neil LaBute has really been impressing me with his play writing style. From the first show of his I saw (Fat Pig) to In A Dark Dark House, he’s managed to capture both the natural way in which modern people speak and also the horrible way people lie to themselves and others. It the kind of conundrum I really like to watch play out on stage, and for this reason I was excited to see Reasons to Be Pretty when I saw it was coming to the Almeida.

Reasons to be Pretty is about a normal Joe (or Greg – Tom Burke) and the people he works with, and his attempts to navigate the turbulent waters of cross-gender communication. Or so I thought as the show started and Greg was going toe to toe with his girlfriend Steph (the amazing Sian Brooke), whom he has just vilely insulted. Or has he? When the words are finally extracted from his mouth – to much disgust from Steph – you have to wonder Just what is she flipping out about? or, alternately, How does he not get how offensive that was? Or, actually, you should be thinking both, wondering Why does that one sentence seem so different from opposite sides of the bedroom?

To be honest (although I loved the fight scene), I worried at this point that the play was going to be a big boring “And now the clumsy man learns to have some sympathy for poor little sensitive women with our horribly polluted brains” with a cutesy happy ending. This feeling was only compounded by the extreme asshattery of Greg’s best friend, an egotistical asshole who says one thing in front of his friend and another when is pregnant wife/girlfriend is around. Said wife (who works at the same place as the two men) is supposedly hot (which is why friend stays with her) but also appears stunningly ignorant and self-righteous. In fact, as a couple they’re two of the most unappealing characters I’ve seen on stage in ages. You can only assume they’re there as a foil for Greg’s “journey of self discovery,” although how he’s ever going to get a word of sympathy out of either of them is a mystery.

But LaBute doesn’t go for this obvious story. Instead, he starts digging much deeper, into the nature of friendship and the rules that tie people together. We also get a serious examination of the rules Greg has written for himself, and even though he comes off initially like a checked-out loser, when he gets to a crisis point (more than once!) where his values and his actions come into conflict, he manages to execute flying paradigm shifts that would do credit to a cat being dropped into a bathtub. You can practically see him morphing into a vertebrate mid-scene.

At the end of this show, I came away with two major wows (other than the fact it was overall awesome): the set, which was basically a rotating steel packing container with sides that flipped down to create different rooms; and Sian Brooke as an actress, who I’ve now seen in three productions in one year, two of which totally (and successfully) hung on her emotional range to convey a deeply troubled character. And there was a third minor wow: this show is the first time since I’ve been in England that I didn’t catch a single bobble in the accents of the characters. I was actually surprised to find they were all English – I thought the way they spoke was a bit stilted, but I thought it was because they were Californians trying to sound like they were from Jersey. In fact, the whole effect, of watching an American play set in America showing (not at their best) American people actually made me a bit homesick. On the other hand, I’m not the least bit sorry that I’m not having to come home to any of the characters this play was about; but the fact LaBute created four people who seemed real enough to have a life before and after the show (I wound up arguing about how Greg and Steph ever got together in the first place with the people I went with) is a sign of a really well-written show. It’s on for six more weeks; if you value new writing and solid story telling, go see it.

(This review is for a performance seen on Saturday, November 19th, 2011. Apparently there is a TV celebrity in the cast but as I did not recognize her when I was watching the show I’m not going to say who she was though she did a completely fine job in the role of “the pregnant girlfriend.” However, I feel like her casting is responsible for the show being substantially sold out so I’m going to try to encourage people to go because it’s an awesome show rather than feeding any further interest due to celeb casting. Also, while Siân Brooke is generally amazing, I think it’s time for her to play someone rich, or at least middle class, just for variety’s sake.)

Review – The Mercy Seat – Glowbox at the Pleasance Theater

September 2, 2011

What if something happened that could change your life forever?

What if, instead of it being something good (like winning the lottery), it was a disaster?

What if it meant you could walk away from your life?

Would you do it?

This is one of the key questions that is asked during the play The Mercy Seat. Billed as Neil LaBute’s 9/11 play, in fact it’s only peripherally about 9/11 – its situation is as easily transposed to a tsunami or an earthquake. I’m grateful for this as I didn’t want to see a show that had me reliving the devastation of that day. And it was supposed to be incredibly controversial, I’m guessing because it has some explicit discussions of sex. But it wasn’t wallowing in the disaster and it wasn’t in anyway pornographic.

Instead … well … Okay, I have to tell you, I’m going to put in enough spoilers that you should stop reading here if you don’t want some important plot points discussed. Summary: very good, do go. And stop reading here if you want it your experience to be almost entirely a surprise.

Back to the review. Instead of being about people screwing their way through the devastation (which I was kind of expecting), it’s a cold and painful look at the way people lie to themselves and others about what they want and why. Two lovers, Ben (Sean O’Neill) and Abby (Janine Ulfane), are holed up in her apartment the day after the blast. At first, it seems like Abby is being a complete hardass with Ben, hassling him for lying on the couch in a completely believable state of shock while she’s out trying to get them some food when she thinks he should be helping with the rescue efforts. But as the story unfolds, Abby starts delving more explicitly into what is going wrong with the two of them and why Ben’s wild plans seem utterly senseless. Her dissection of their relationship – while he loudly insists that if the sex is good, then what is there to be wrong, and he knows it’s good – captures perfectly not just their own strange mental states but the insecurities and lies they’ve been telling themselves and each other to keep things going for the last three years.

What blew me away about this play was Neil LaBute’s effortless creation of naturalistic dialogue and characters. I spent an hour and forty minutes watching Ben and Ellie bicker, tease, berate, kiss, push, and question each other, and not once did I feel like I was listening to something written. The actors have to take credit, too – Janine Ulfane and Sean O’Neill were on stage for the entire time and they didn’t let up. In fact, they kept the pressure on so tightly I felt like just anything, just anything, might happen between the two of them in this lawless space where death was at the front and all the known rules of the universe were suspended.

I was worn out at the end of this show but excited about what I’d just seen. This is a timeless play despite having a very specific setting, and very much worth reviving. I’m really pleased I got to see it for free as a guest of Glowbox, but at £12 it’s a screaming deal despite the occasional bad sightlines and sound quality in the Pleasance and at 1:40 it still gets you home at a good time. In short: go.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, September 1st, 2011. It continues through September 18th.)

Review – In A Dark Dark House – Almeida Theatre

December 7, 2008

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.)

Review – Fat Pig – Comedy Theatre

September 26, 2008

After reading the Whingers’ enthusiastic review of Fat Pig, I was eager to go … but apparently the cat was out of the bag, and night after night I was unable to get an affordable seat at Trafalgar Studios. Fortunately, it’s been moved to The Comedy Theatre, so I had a second chance to see this play – and when an offer came up for free tickets for the first hundred people to buy a pair, I leapt at the chance.

Oddly, I had a bit of trouble convincing other people to see this play with me. I think the title really puts people off – it did me and only the positive review of several people I respect convinced me to go. This isn’t an anti-fat play, no matter what you might think.

My posse convened at Red Hot, a new Szechuan restaurant on Charing Cross Road (actually quite close to the theater, though closer to Wyndhams). I could go on and on about how good the food was – or the irony of going to a play called “Fat Pig” when I was so stuffed I could barely walk – but I’ll save that for later. At any rate, I feared I would fall asleep during the show and downed cup after cup of green tea during the meal. Thankfully, service was fast and we made it from arrival at the table (at 6 PM) to arrival at the Comedy in a mere hour and twenty minutes. More restaurants should follow this example!

At any rate, I was surprised to find Wilco playing over the loudspeakers when we arrived. How pleasant! Unfortunately the theater appeared to only be about half full, which did result in us being moved forward about ten rows (to my relief, I really dislike being under a low ceiling in the stalls). And the program came with free chocolates! I was still too cheap to buy one, but it almost changed my mind – and if there’d been a bit of room inside of me, I’m sure I would have been swayed.

To my surprise, this play is actually set in America. This is pretty nice for me, to see my home depicted in a modern play (as opposed to some Tennessee Williams chestnut – we have moved on!). The actors actually did fairly well with the accent as well (with the exception of Joanna Page, who kept falling apart around the edges). I couldn’t place the location – while with its mention of “beach” and “big office” it seemed like it was supposed to be New York or East Coast, but the way people were acting made me think much more of Ohio. And the reference to the Albertson’s grocery store was very West Coast, but it was clear this wasn’t taking place in California.

The story is about a youngish man, Tom (played by Nick Burns) who meets a girl named Helen (Ella Smith) while having lunch one day. They hit it off pretty well, and soon he’s dating her – a fact he hides from his best work friend/tormentor Carter (Kevin Bishop) and office accountant Jeannie (Page), who (oops!) Tom was apparently dating but hasn’t really had the guts to break up with. She still thinks it’s going on, Carter wants to make them fight with each other, and the next thing you know, the whole office has had the picture of the “Fat Pig” Tom had dinner with plastered on their desktops.

The cast is apparently just half of what it was originally, as both of the women carried over from Trafalgar Studios, but the men have both been replaced. Bishop seems to have jumped in with both feet, but Burns has more work to do, as a lead character who is basically weak is hard to make sympathetic (witness Rosmersholm). I found Smith’s Helen just incredibly sympathetic, and while much of this can be ascribed to great dialogue, she also just really seemed to “get” the character 0 – the self-deprecating humor, the honesty, the brave girl face on top of the person who actually still wants to be accepted and loved. I was also really surprised that her conversations with Tom were so incredibly naturalistic – normally in plays, couples are in high drama mode, but this “working through our issues” stuff could have come right out of my mouth. It was especially a contrast with the high-octane bragadoccio and just plain filth that came out of Carter’s mouth – it got a lot of laughs but over and over the audience gasped at his unrestrained words.

This was really a good show and all of us got into it. Though the set is simple and the costumes plain (really, could Jeannie have had more than just two outfits – one of them the swim suit in the final scene?), I found the dialogue great and the play really convesation provoking. Despite my very full stomach, I had absolutely no problems staying awake for this entire show. It’s worth seeing, absolutely, and I think the people who didn’t come with me didn’t know what they were going to be missing.

(This review is for a performance that took place on September 25th, 2008. Ambassadors is running a deal for £20 tickets: “Best Tickets £20! (Valid all Mon- Fri eves & both mats until 10 Oct)
Enter Promotion Code: FPSTAND.” Also Kelly Brook, whoever she is, is taking over the role of Jeannie from October 13th, and someone named Katie Kerr is taking over the role of Helen, I think from the same time. )