Wrecks -- Theater Review

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Playwright Neil LaBute loves to push audiences' buttons, never shying away from explosive themes, particularly in exploring male-female relationships. In the scribe's best works, such as the film "In the Company of Men" and the play "Fat Pig," this approach has paid off with profound yet disturbing insights into gender politics. In "Wrecks," LaBute's one-act solo piece featuring Ed Harris, the playwright saves a startling character revelation for the final few minutes. With no time remaining for viewers to fathom the shocking news, there's little to do but rack one's brain to recall clues to the outcome. LaBute's 80-minute monologue is part classic Greek drama and part bait-and-switch hucksterism, honoring gimmickry over dramaturgy.

But thanks to Harris' Herculean acting feat, the contrived ending almost becomes beside the point. His portrayal of Edward Carr, a grieving middle-aged Midwesterner at a funeral parlor, sorting through complex feelings following his wife's death, works on basic human levels that stand apart from the tacked-on story twist. Never mind that the late-arriving information raises serious questions about Edward's morality; LaBute has chosen not to explore these issues. So perhaps we should disregard them as well and focus on savoring the nuances of Harris' multifaceted portrait of passion, grief and resignation.

Harris illuminates the ecstasy of a man intensely in love with his wife, 15 years his elder, who has succumbed to cancer. Although Edward says he doesn't have "the touch of a poet," he refers to the late Mary Jo as "absolute heaven come down to Earth and squeezed into human form." He recalls his troubled and lonely youth, when he was given up for adoption. He also describes the lucrative business he devised to support himself and Mary Jo -- buying and refurbishing classic cars and renting them -- providing the play's somewhat ambiguous title.

Harris' characterization is likable -- very funny at times and deeply moving at others. He convincingly conjures the stream-of-consciousness thoughts racing through this widower's mind on this immensely emotional day. Harris enriches the portrayal when recounting incidents in which Edward's anger got the best of him, as this middle-of-the-road guy shows a wide range of vulnerability and depth.

Venue: Geffen Playhouse, Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre, Westwood (Through March 7)
Playwright-director: Neil LaBute
Cast: Ed Harris
Set director: Sibyl Wickersheimer
Costume director: Lynette Meyer
Lighting director: Lap Chi Chu
Sound director: Cricket S. Myers
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