Theater Review: Neil LaBute's 'The Break of Noon,' Starring David Duchovny

Joan Marcus
Neil LaBute seems to be barely trying in this wisp of a play, kinda-sorta about spiritual redemption.

In the opening of "The Break of Noon," David Duchovny's character sits in shock, his shoulders wrapped in a blanket, sharing his first-hand account of the massacre of his entire fleet of office co-workers by a crazed gunman.

Imagining the victims' state of mind as the tragedy was about to unfold, he says, "Not a thought in their heads other than maybe the shrimp basket over at that Irish pub that's catty-corner to us over on Sixth Avenue..."

More than the dull monotone of Duchovny's performance, that early stroke of writerly insincerity is the giveaway that kneecaps Neil LaBute's new play from the outset.

A co-production premiering off-Broadway for MCC Theater before moving in January to the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, this insubstantial drama uses the big subjects of religion and faith to explore the same old same old. Even the structure feels routine, with six two-character confrontations, bookended by monologues, and none of it satisfyingly grounded in reality.
Duchovny plays John Smith, who is less the everyman his name suggests than he is Every Neil LaBute Man. That means he's a mean-spirited jerk who bullies his colleagues, cheats on his wife and strings along his mistress with empty promises. When his sole-survivor ordeal and alleged divine deliverance earn him sudden wealth and celebrity, the overnight believer becomes God's messenger, spouting a new doctrine of love and kindness.
Except that nobody's buying it -- at least not the characters John encounters during the play, portrayed by three actors doubling in two roles apiece.
John Earl Jelks appears as a cynical lawyer who stands to make a fat fee, and a skeptical cop whose own religious convictions are offended. Tracee Chimo plays a patronizing talk-show host and a roleplay-specializing hooker whose murdered mother was immortalized in John's moneymaking cell-phone photo of the killing spree. Amanda Peet is the bitter ex-wife John attempts to woo back. She also gets the equally thankless role of her trashy cousin, with whom John has been sleeping and now wants to put things right.
Director Jo Bonney and set designer Neil Patel demarcate this static action with punchy scene changes, using minimal elements on a revolving set framed by flashing light bulbs -- like a stripped-down modern vaudeville. But the slick production can't inject dramatic momentum or credibility into the writing.
In the closing monologue, the evangelical John addresses his growing flock, revealing the true back-story behind the killings and his own role as indirect instigator. However, in lieu of one of LaBute's trademark nasty twists, the play instead offers a visual coup that casts John's conversion in a different light.
Ultimately, the playwright seems less interested in either John's culpability or the genuineness of his faith than he is in whether a morally empty man can change. Which would be fine if there were some complexity and conviction brought to that familiar question.
It's probably inevitable that the work of anyone as prolific as LaBute is going to be erratic. For every bracingly insightful play like In the Company of Men, Fat Pig (returning next spring on Broadway with Dane Cook) or the recent Reasons to Be Pretty, there are disposable exercises in attitudinizing to which name actors gravitate nonetheless. This one lands on the latter pile.
Venue: Lucille Lortel Theatre, New York (through Dec. 22)
Presented by MCC Theater, Geffen Playhouse, by special arrangement with the Lucille Lortel Foundation
Cast: David Duchovny, Amanda Peet, Tracee Chimo, John Earl Jelks
Playwright: Neil LaBute
Director: Jo Bonney
Set designer: Neil Patel
Costume designer: ESosa
Lighting designer: David Weiner
Sound designer: Darron L. West
Music: Justin Ellington