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Stephen Belber's 'Finally' at Black Dahlia

Times Theater Critic

Four monologues, four characters, one mesmerizing actor and a whole mess of sorry violence -- Stephen Belber's "Finally" at the Black Dahlia Theatre is a small Rashomon puzzle laden with pernicious explosives.

Morlan Higgins plays a former semipro football player, a miserably married girl-woman, a Byron- and Tennyson-quoting mutt and a coach, and there came a time during one chameleon-like confession when it was hard to remain in the theater. Amid descriptions of murder, incest and other savage acts, we hear about the dog being tortured -- and the rambling recap would challenge even hardened sensibilities.

Strange that an abused animal can cut to the core more easily than a man with his skull bashed in on the sidewalk. Chalk it up to overexposure to police procedurals. But our reaction is also a function of the thematic circuitry Belber has wired between love and betrayal, guilt and forgiveness.

What makes these reported crimes so unspeakable is their violation of innocence -- an innocence so pure that even when crushed it remains unchanged. Such deeds contain their own retribution, for in destroying something irreplaceably precious, these perpetrators have sentenced themselves to a kind of death-in-life.

Belber -- whose works include "Match" and the play and screenplay for "Tape" -- writes as though we're in a post-cathartic moment, rubbing our numbed noses in sorrowful depravity. It's an hour of accidental cruelty and agonizing compunction, composed as a jigsaw of recoiling vividness.

Higgins, guided by Black Dahlia artistic director Matt Shakman, doesn't flamboyantly transform himself -- he lets the words of each speaker descend into his bloodstream. Students of acting will learn a great deal from the way the characters overtake him rather than the other way around.

The staging is simple, set against an aerial-view backdrop of an ordinary American town. And as he demonstrated with his production of "Secrets of the Trade" -- one of the best acted shows of the year -- Shakman can perfectly measure performances to his theater's postage-stamp size.

Still, Belber's tale requires a certain steeliness that not every wincing theatergoer will wish to possess.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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