By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
Early on in This Is How It Goes, Neil LaBute's savage one-act play showing through July 23 at the Biltmore Hotel's GableStage, the lead character confesses that he is an unreliable narrator and that the story about to unfold may not have happened quite as he says.
And then he talks a lot; about racism and sexism, the liberal idiocies of political correctness, the horrors of residual, virulent misogyny and primal bigotry. And he comments that men are pigs, which is a thematic thread that runs through much of LaBute's work, including 1997's In the Company of Men and the subsequent Your Friends and Neighbors, Bash, and The Shape of Things.
A hit at New York's Public Theater and London's Donmar Warehouse in 2005, This Is How It Goes celebrates its Florida premiere at the Coral Gables theater and stars Todd Allen Durkin, Beth McIntosh, and Brandon Morris as, respectively, Man, Woman, and Cody. The action is "yesterday" in "a smallish town in the Midwest." Man, who used to be very fat, is now not only handsome but also ex-military, an ex-lawyer, and an ex-husband a white guy who calls himself "great at used-to-be." Upon returning to his hometown, he meets Woman, someone he knew as a teenager who is married to her black high school sweetheart, Cody. According to Man, their marriage is in trouble, at least in his several versions of the truth.
Although Joseph Adler's direction is swift, the whole affair was a couple of rehearsals short of ready on opening night. And though the male characters take a while to warm to, their performances grow stronger as the evening progresses. The frisson of Durkin's sheer nice presence imagine Tom Hanks playing a sexist slimeball never quite gets to the edge of irony. Both men, portrayed as pigs in the script, could be more fearless in their piggishness. McIntosh, on the other hand, suggests all the complexities LaBute's male characters cannot fathom from her first scene. And her vulnerability adds a layer of tragedy to her assertiveness.
Jeff Quinn's lighting appropriately mirrors the abrupt changes in the script, with stark spots as Dunkin switches from a character in his own story to narrator. Durkin had trouble hitting his marks on time during the opening-night performance, and the lighting changes were a tad plodding. Lyle Baskin's stage design falls victim to the temptation offered by the Biltmore's wide stage. It makes sense in theory to use all that space and to divide it into discrete sets for the various scenes of LaBute's intense little play. But it might have been faster and more powerful to concentrate the action center stage than to spread it out in literal illustrations of a cafeteria, a living room, and a backyard with table and chairs. One good touch, though, is the surprise of parting walls upstage that reveal first a sidewalk followed by various other locations.
This Is How It Goes may take place entirely inside the narrator's mind, a possibility production details discourage. Like LaBute's Bash and David Mamet's Oleanna, which This Is How It Goes briefly echoes in one of several narrative surprises this script calls for a heavy dose of mental cruelty.
It would spoil things to give away the plot's many twists, but it is meant to make one cringe. Like Mamet, LaBute has an ear for the unsettling language of the locker room and the boardroom; he has an insider's viewpoint of men's hatred of women and of the races' hatred of each other. LaBute's characters are often as repugnant as they are ordinary, and they ring true. In How It Goes, a pretty, wealthy, white Woman falls for a hot, black athlete who might be beating her and could be cheating with an underaged Caucasian girl. Or perhaps it's the other way around and Woman is fooling around on her husband with a man she used to know. Perhaps the nerdy white Man gets revenge on the jocks who picked on him in high school by rescuing the object of his pubescent desire from her black thug of a husband. Or perhaps he achieves a dream of belonging by befriending one of those jocks at last, guys together in their hatred of wives and daughters. Woman is a victim, of course, but she may or may not have control of the course of her life.
The plot might be as simple and arcane as trading baseball cards, knowing that a Jackie Robinson first-issue is rare because bigoted white fans destroyed as many as they could. Or it could be as intricate as a Hitchcock whodunit as Man suggests after staying up late watching a Hitchcock retrospective on TV. Who knows? The thing about a marriage that falls apart is that no version of the truth is complete. LaBute lets Cody place the race card with a shameless flair that would make O.J. Simpson's lawyer blush, but the playwright keeps his hand close to his vest.
Rather than tell us the truth, he makes us guess. That really is how it goes.