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Actors’ Night Out

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Your friends and neighbors, to use one of playwright Neil LaBute’s own cinematic titles, look one way and act another.

This isn’t a new dramatic conceit; it’s simply the one that interests LaBute the most. His characters appear upright, but once they forget about appearances they unleash all manner of fresh hell on their fellow humans--their children, closest to home, or an anonymous gay-bashing victim, not incidentally because the victim reminds a frat boy of his own father.

That’s how it goes in the stern and deceptively low-key “Bash.” The trio of “Latter Day Plays” (LaBute’s a Mormon, as are his murderous characters here) makes its West Coast debut at the Can~on Theatre.

Good actors can’t ask for much more in the way of stripped-down, straight-up deadpan venality. And good actors we have, the same three who originated LaBute’s “Bash” in New York: Calista Flockhart, Paul Rudd and Ron Eldard.

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They provide an expertly acted evening of monologues, directed with a confident touch by Joe Mantello, designed with minimalist acuity by Scott Pask (scenery) and especially by James Vermeulen (lighting), whose cold, baleful effects locate the stories morally, without a word being spoken. The level of craft is high. And if it’s possible for “Bash” to be as compelling as it is fundamentally hollow, well, then, it is.

LaBute knows how to keep us listening; he knows how to layer his little mundanities and larger horrors. But this is pretty facile stuff. LaBute, whose work as writer-director in the movies includes “In the Company of Men,” “Your Friends and Neighbors” and the forthcoming “Nurse Betty,” provides all sorts of banally heinous behavior, yet I’m not sure “Bash” imparts a true sense of moral craziness--a world out of balance, dimly perceived by these peewee gods and monsters.

The first is best. In “Medea Redux,” an unnamed woman (Flockhart) relays for the benefit of her unseen interviewer a tale of seduction and revenge. Years earlier she had an affair, at 13, with her junior high school teacher. He taught her about Greek mythology and science; she bears his child, Billie (named after the teacher’s favorite singer, Billie Holiday). Years after the teacher has fled the situation, mother and son visit the father. And since the one-act is a conscious riff on “Medea,” let’s just say it doesn’t end with everyone alive.

“Iphegenia in Orem” finds another confessor bending the ear of an unseen listener. The man (Eldard) is a Mormon businessman, now on the road a lot. He’s a spiritual cousin to the smiling louts of “In the Company of Men,” a guy who doesn’t get why white guys lost ground when it came to unchallenged social and corporate dominance. He is, we learn, willing to kill in order to retain his job in a time of downsizing.

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“A Gaggle of Saints” presents two voices in counterpoint, those of John (Rudd) and his girlfriend, Sue (Flockhart), college kids who tell of a recent trip from Boston to Manhattan. John is classic Susan Faludi material; his pent-up aggression, wearing a mask of piety, finds all the wrong outlets. A stylish night at the Plaza takes a little detour. While Sue remains in the hotel, John and the boys encounter a gay couple in Central Park. Soon there’s blood spattering the walls of a public restroom. And clueless John is barely the worse forwear.

Even as it’s giving an audience the cold creeps, “Bash” gives an audience too much--in terms of tidiness, not explicitness. The Greek-tragic echoes are tinny. The symbols are blunt but sort of dumb; Flockhart’s description of a shark in an aquarium in “Medea Redux” is meant to evoke her predatory teacher, and does so in obvious fashion. In “Iphegenia in Orem,” the Mormon’s ultimate attempt to maintain his family’s status quo is outlandishly melodramatic, and his solution to potential job loss feels rigged, tricked-up.

Flockhart is very good in “Medea,” and her climactic screech from the soul (not indicated in the published script) is truly chilling. Marvelous choice, whether it was Flockhart’s, or director Mantello’s, or both. Rudd’s insidiously ingratiating frat boy is shrewdly judged, though LaBute overplays his Freudian hand. Of course John’s victim reminds him of his father; of course John is likely a latent, self-hating homosexual underneath the swagger. It wouldn’t have been enough for him to simply be a bloodthirsty fraternity sociopath. Eldard’s monologue is the most attenuated, yet he works it wonderfully, nursing his glass of water, chuckling too easily, too often, in ways that reveal a character’s undercurrents.

“Bash” exists in a harsher realm than the film “American Beauty,” yet LaBute and “American Beauty” screenwriter Alan Ball share a vision of America as a bastion of smiling hypocrisy. The vision, if neatly packaged and stylishly presented, seems to be selling right now. LaBute drains the mystery and messiness from his subjects, though. “Bash” may be an actor’s dream, and these actors are a grim pleasure to watch. But when the play is over, it’s over. It doesn’t insinuate or get anything rattling around in your head. It just bashes.

*

* “Bash, Latter Day Plays,” Can~on Theatre, 205 N. Can~on Drive, Beverly Hills. Saturdays, 3 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 7 p.m. Ends Dec. 19. $60-$75. (310) 859-2830. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Calista Flockhart: Woman/Sue

Ron Eldard: Young Man

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Paul Rudd: John

Written by Neil LaBute. Directed by Joe Mantello. Set by Scott Pask. Costumes by Lynette Meyer. Lighting by James Vermeulen. Sound by Red Ramona. Production stage manager Ronn Goswick.


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