Neil LaBute’s “In a Dark Dark House” begs the immediate question: why bother with the redundant title? Any residence where Mr. LaBute comes knockin’ is not likely to sit on the sunny side of the street, and his 2007 three-hander proves no exception in its solidly erected but emotionally vacant West Coast premiere from Broken Hand Productions at the Matrix Theatre.
The darkness this time out centers on child abuse, filtered through a characteristically squirm-inducing lens. Long-buried traumas surface when ruggedly brooding Terry (Aaron McPherson) arrives at the hospital where his self-destructive younger brother, Drew (Shaun Sipos), is serving time in court-ordered rehab.
Terry has reluctantly agreed to corroborate Drew’s therapy session accounts of relentless beatings by their psychotic father and molestation by a predatory friend. Leave it to LaBute to ponder which were the worse violations, and answer with an unnerving final twist to an intricate jigsaw-puzzle narrative.
A-list acting coach Larry Moss’ staging elicits at best a B+ performance outing here. Given the brothers’ troubled past, the chilly distance between them and their awkward testosterone-laden attempts to bridge it are appropriate, at least at first.
There’s a difference, however, between estranged characters and estranged actors. While Sipos’ mercurial screw-up and McPherson’s damaged loner each achieve some engaging individual moments, the cast hasn’t gelled as an ensemble.
The dialogue’s meticulously crafted musical cadences suffer throughout, but most problematically between Terry and a promiscuous 15-year-old (Annie Chernecky) in an increasingly creepy middle scene that contains some of the snappiest lines LaBute has ever penned for a female character.
Although the play has its share of horrific revelations, opportunities to pile on even more bad behavior remain surprisingly unpursued — it’s not like LaBute to pull punches.
Perhaps the story’s highly fictionalized but nevertheless autobiographical kernel prompted him to allow a glimmer of redemption to pierce his own heart of darkness.
“In a Dark Dark House,” Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 31. $34.99. (323) 960-7612 or www.darkhousela.com. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.