It occurred to me watching Neil LaBute’s 90-minute four-hander, that he is the nearest thing America has to George Bernard Shaw. He writes ‘issue’ plays, with meaty themes, in which the dialectic of argument is matched by the dialiectic of character. However, this is a Shaw filtered through the tropes and archetypes of American sit-com and rom-com.
This is not to say that his characters aren’t complex. Here we have the Bitch Goddess, the Nerd, the Lunk, the Klutz, but each of them is brought superbly to life by crackling dialogue and spot-on observation of the flicks and nuances of the domination and submission, insecurities and reassurances, the emotional realities which can be found in almost any relationship based on need. Oh yes. And LaBute’s a lorra lorra laffs too.
This is a very difficult play to review without giving the game – or at least the splended late coup de theatre – away. Suffice it to say that the bases it covers, which fuel the dialectic of the characters, are the nature of art and how we see it, the current obsession with image as a measure of self-worth, and the reasonable or unreasonable demands of the artist.
The key to the drama is exemplified in the witty set, a hunky styrofoam male torso which is dismantled so its parts turn into chairs, tables, beds and so on. Manipulation both of body and psyche is the name of the game. Adam is a nerdish museum attendant, Eve (note the names) an art student. They meet when she transgresses the rules by getting too close to the statue. She flirty, cringing but endearingly funny, they begin a relationship in which she sets about remaking him into something much more conventionally attractive. Pace Shaw, this is ‘Pygmalion’ where the sexes are reversed and the stakes are higher.
Samuel Miller’s fast-paced and nuanced production extracts every ounce of emotional and comic juice from the text. However, there is a central problem with the play, though I’m not sure if it is in the script or the performances. Eve is so obviously a manipulating cow right from the start, her values so clearly skewed, that the denouement, though properly savage, is not quite the shock it would like to be. Personified by Anna Bamberger, she needs more seductive charm. Likewise Adam (Sean McConaghy) is not quite desperate enough to convince us that a man of his intelligence wouldn’t see through her.
Despite this caveat, there is a great deal to chew over and talk about in the bar afterwards, in what is one of LaBute’s most accessible, punchy and entertaining plays. In a series of short, expertly-crafted scenes honed by someone used to the discipline of film, the 90 minutes just fly by.