Theater review: ‘The Break of Noon’ at Geffen Playhouse
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“The Break of Noon,” Neil LaBute’s drama about a creep who finds God in the wake of a calamity, examines another variety of male degenerate: the kind who professes to have seen the light. Can self-centeredness be next to godliness? Count on this tireless chronicler of bad behavior to take the question to nasty extremes in this unholy offering, which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse.
You can also depend on the playwright to reverse course a few times. LaBute enjoys keeping audiences guessing almost as much as he loves pulling the rug out from under them. Is this a morality or an immorality tale? A religious satire or a theological meditation? Like a conman messiah, the play holds its cards close to its chest — though don’t let that automatically stop you from believing.
Unfortunately, though the central idea is a worthy one, the execution of “The Break of Noon” is spotty. After an attention-grabbing start in which John Smith (Kevin Anderson) describes the murderous rampage that left everyone in his office dead but him, the play unfolds in a series of strained duologues. In every confrontation, the character’s newfound faith is pitted against skeptics who either have been burned by him in the past or distrust the motives for his media-hyped assertion that he was spared by God for a divine purpose. The debate isn’t rigged in favor of any one side, but a cloud of polemical contrivance hovers over every scene.
LaBute knows that the soul of man isn’t easily washed clean. A rogue doesn’t lose his roguishness overnight. John’s conversion hasn’t rid him of the sins of greed, lechery, exploitation and solipsism. As he meets with a lawyer (John Earl Jelks) to discuss the value of a photo he snapped of the blood-splattered crime scene, it’s clear that he’s not above making a buck off of an atrocity. And as he tries to win back his ex-wife (Catherine Dent), his arrogant, manipulative and combustible nature rears its ugly head. Well, nobody’s perfect, not even a saint. Prophets and preachers have a notoriously checkered history. But John Smith, whose name invokes Joseph Smith Jr., the controversial founder of what became known as the Latter-day Saint movement (a doubtful coincidence given LaBute’s Mormon background), lacks the charisma to win over even a modest playhouse cult. The role probably needs more star wattage than is supplied here. Anderson, taking a more realistic tack, emphasizes the fleshy, rumpled, middle-aged ordinariness of the character. But then David Duchovny, who hasn’t exactly been shortchanged by the Almighty in the gleam department, wasn’t reported to have had much success when the play premiered last fall off-Broadway.
The production, directed by Jo Bonney, is sleek and modern, but it’s not a miracle worker. A flashy presentation can’t cover up weaknesses in the writing, and the propulsive lighting (David Weiner) and sound design (Darron L. West) only italicize an emptiness in the drama.
With the exception of Anderson, all the actors of this four-person cast play dual roles. Tracee Chimo struggles the most in her two scenes, one as a talk-show host who’s like a bad “Saturday Night Live” parody, the other as a prostitute who’s degraded by John not by sex but by redemption. Dent is better as John’s remote ex-wife than as his trashy former mistress (and in-law!). As the lawyer and detective, Jelks does what he can to personalize types who don’t always seem consistent or believable.
There’s a surprise at the end that manages a nifty feat of stagecraft. But the effect is of a piece with a work that is so heavily laden with significance yet so frustratingly deficient in true revelation.
-- Charles McNulty
“The Break of Noon,” Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 6. $47-$77. (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.