'In a Dark Dark House': Theater Review

Courtesy of Lucy Pollak Public Relations
Powerful and perceptive drama about abused brothers.

Despite contrivances in the play, this production of one of Neil LaBute's most emotionally raw works is confident and compelling.

Whatever shall we do with prodigious provocateur Neil LaBute (The Shape of Things, reasons to be pretty), the most irretrievably uneven of our major playwrights? He traffics in big concepts and asks tough questions, his talent for seemingly idiomatic, idiosyncratic dialogue offering a true boon for actors. Yet like most of his characters, he can also be his own worst enemy, enamored of schematic, twisty reveals and clunky paradoxes, gifted with a knack for shock, far too comfortable making his audiences uneasy. In a Dark Dark House finds him more frank and direct about his own queasy anxieties regarding anger, shame and guilt, and so, though peppered with shortcomings in credibility, it makes for intense and emotionally honest theater.

This potent, flawed 2007 play was substantively rewritten after its monthlong off-Broadway run for its 2008 engagement at the Almeida Theatre in London, and this revised version now appears in the West Coast premiere, after a U.S. debut this May in Philadelphia. It's among LaBute's most nakedly personal examinations of stunted males enmeshed in conflicts of intimacy, so much so that it almost self-consciously plays out as his own variation on motifs familiar from one of his most direct influences, Sam Shepard.

Long-estranged brothers are reunited when working-class misfit Terry (Aaron McPherson) is summoned to a psychiatric hospital where the younger Drew (Shaun Sipos), a 35-year old disbarred (though still very wealthy) lawyer, has been committed after smashing up his car in a coke-fueled frenzy — and may now face serious felony charges. The two were abused by a brutally violent father, and now Drew wants Terry to corroborate that he had been subject to early adolescent sexual molestation by a charismatic adult, the never-seen predator Todd. Of course, one also realizes at a Neil LaBute play that while guys have a hard time acknowledging their feelings, inevitably the truth and its consequences will surprise.

Ironically, we never encounter anyone in any dark, dark house; rather, the three scenes (played without a break for close to two hours) all are set in manicured landscapes in what feels like oppressive daylight, unsheltered expanses splayed across the disproportionately wide Matrix stage. The profoundly repressed characters go through life crouched within the respective, dismal domiciles of their deeply scarred souls.

LaBute masterfully ratchets up tension in the novel, severely discomfiting, middle scene, set on the 13th hole of a forlorn pitch' n' putt course, where Terry encounters the teenaged Jennifer (Annie Chernecky) cleaning out the messes hidden in the underground piping; the playwright is toying with our well-honed expectations for the worst.

Ultimately, it all gets troweled on too thickly, as the actors are charged with going at one another hammer-and-tongs time and again, from forced horseplay to anguished confession to uncontrollable aggression. The cumulative impact can be analogous to their father's habitual beatings, pummeling us into submission and, inevitably, into rebellion. And it must be noted that the playwright's strategically belabored invocations of homosexual panic seem excessive, even if the period is fussily specified as still being "2007."

Nevertheless, LaBute conveys a palpable empathy for damaged goods, offering many an insight into the unfathomable hurt of the walking wounded. The play's thematic material may be standard-issue contemporary drama, but LaBute’s vision and voice are singular, and when he is not sabotaging himself with gambits that are sometimes predictably telegraphed, he encourages a rich compassion for those struggling with the curse of trauma and the drive to pass along its destructiveness.

Under the direction of legendary teacher and coach Larry Moss, the production makes evident the play’s strengths, but fails to transcend its weaknesses. Barely contained fury that might have worked better on roiling simmer instead feels like it's on relentless boil with the lid ready to pop at any moment. McPherson has the most demanding role, which probably asks too much of any actor; he manages to maintain the layered suppression of rage far even after LaBute falters in making Terry's multiple agonies credible. On the Waterfront is name-checked early on with a wink to fraternal treachery, but even Brando would have gone dizzy with these histrionic requirements.

By comparison, Sipos' Drew is played for callow duplicity. He is intended to be shallow and display an addict's untrustworthiness, which Sipos conjures by affecting a feckless narcissism. Chernecky's prematurely crafty innocent affords a welcome stylization of performance in a tricky, somewhat trumped-up role which she and Moss navigate with unerring balance of tone.

Playwright: Neil LaBute, adapted from his short story "Swallowing Bicycles"
Scenic Design: John Iacovelli
Sound Design: Cricket S. Myers
Lighting Design: Watson Bradshaw
Costume Design: Kimberly Overton
Producer: Caitlin R. Campbell

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