“Did I have a bad childhood? I think so. Was I abused? As a matter of fact, yes. Is it all behind me? On a good day.”—Neil LaBute
Before seeing Simpatico Theatre Project’s production of IN A DARK DARK HOUSE, I could only take Neil LaBute’s brand of cold-hearted nasty in small doses. Seeing monologues from LaBute’s Fat Pig, and reasons to be pretty, I had decided his plays were filled with destructive self-absorbed prigs. Watching his In the Company of Men, in which two executives scheme to woo and destroy a deaf girl just because they can, I was convinced: LaBute is an asshole who writes like a sadist. Viewing the film version of The Shape of Things, I refined my opinion: LaBute is just a stone cold sadist.
But at the opening night performance of LaBute’s IN A DARK DARK HOUSE I had what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity: Suddenly an entire oeuvre littered with cruel antihero bastards made sense.
I was not at all surprised to find that LaBute dedicates this play to Sam Shepard. Simpatico’s production, a rewritten version of the play getting its American premiere, is reminiscent of Shepard’s True West. Shepard went off to the desert to write, found that he could not escape his violent alcoholic father, and came back with True West. IN A DARK DARK HOUSE sees LaBute confronting his own violent, possibly bipolar father. LaBute’s internal dialogue is evident in the preface: “Did I have a bad childhood? I think so. Was I abused? As a matter of fact, yes. Is it all behind me? On a good day. I understand quite deeply what the brothers in the story are going through. I too, grew up in a house shrouded in shadow and sadness.”
Set designer Colin McIlvaine’s strips clean Walnut’s Studio 5 stage down to puritanical wood and lighting designer Jerold R. Forsythe casts sobering lights upon Drew (Ahren Potraz), a 35-year-old self-medicating lawyer who finds himself disbarred and locked up in a court-appointed rehab facility after wrecking his car and possibly his marriage, crashing in a cocaine haze with a strange woman in the passenger seat. Drew’s doctors call his estranged, short-fused, 37-year-old brother Terry (Allen Radway), a security guard who prefers to work nights. Drew and Terry stand face-to-face, brother-to-brother, overlapping, spilling into each others sentences like the two halves of the same conflicted brain.
A psychiatric-rehab is the only place LaBute could plant these stubborn man-boy-brothers, and expect to extract an ounce of truth out of either.
Potratz is perfect as the ineffectual Drew, the brother wearing the hospital-issued bracelet around his wrist. His emphatic use of the word “dude” is an active rebellion against adulthood, like a Lost Boy conducting a sit-in refusing to vacate Neverland. But this three-part, 90-minute play is sustained entirely by Terry’s fury, and the production rests largely on the shoulders of Radway. Within thirty seconds, Radway proves he has the chops to bear it.
Fifteen-year-old Jennifer, portrayed by the doll-faced, snarky Mary Beth Shrader, is youth devoid of innocence, and director Harriet Power makes sure of it. Lights up on the second scene: the audience immediately gets a view of her butt on a mini-golf course. Apparently even the golf courses in this play refuse to grow up. [Simpatico Theatre Project, Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5, 825 Walnut Street] May 7-June 1, 2014, simpaticotheatre.org.
Read an unedited version of this review on Jessica Foley’s theater site, Foley Got Comped.