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A CurtainUp Review
The Distance From Here
By Elyse Sommer
London Production Review by Lizzie Loveridge
Like Edward Bond in his horrific Saved, LaBute paints an unremittingly grim picture of a group of teenagers whose common bond is emotional undernourishment, exacerbated by bad luck (mostly by way of equally emotionally crippled parents) and the wrong turns taken that lead to dead-end lives.
As in Saved, a constantly wailing infant underscores the absence of parent-child bonding and brings the day by day, year by year rage and despair to a gasp-inducing dramatic boil. Mr. LaBute may have "marginalized" the Darrells and Tims and Jenns who were but weren't part of his middle class high school days, but he's belatedly captured the dissonance of their behavior patterns, body language and the speech over punctuated with the clueless "whatever."
Like previous LaBute plays, Distance had its premiere in London where Lizzie Loveridge reviewed it. Except for Mark Webber who created the role of the central character, Darrell, the MCC production that just opened for a limited run at the Duke Theater has a different cast, creative team and director. The playwright, who often directs his own work, couldn't have wished for two more capable helmsmen than David Leveaux in London, and now Michael Greif. And the cast I saw is excellent.
I've included the original review on this page (after the MCC production notes) because it provides all the necessary plot and character details, and corresponds to my own general reactions to the play. The description of the Leveaux production also fits the edgy momentum of Greif's staging.
Webber is at once scary and heart-wrenching as Darrell. Anna Paquin, whose blossoming stage career has been built on characters from society's underbelly, is aptly cast as Webber's sexually promiscuous half-sister who is herself barely out of her teens though already the unwed mother of the wailing waif that seems to be crying for the human flotsam and jetsam gathered on this stage. Even more poignant is Alison Pill, as Darrell's girlfriend Jenn who by all rights should have found the distance from the here of Darrll and Tim, but didn't. The entire cast is excellent, including the only visible adults, Darrell's immature mother Cammie (Melissa Leo) and her macho Gulf War veteran boy friend Rich (Josh Charles) whose idea of being fatherly to Darrell is to let him touch his war trophies-- the scars representing the men he killed..
Louisa Thompson, who did such notable work for SoHo Rep's [sic], has created a set that swivels to opposite sides of a wall -- on one side the chintzy living room of Darrell's unhomelike home and the other suggesting a variety of locales; this last includes the entrance to the zoo that is a chilling metaphor for the cages in which the human species of LaBute's hopeless universe are as surely trapped in cages as the monkeys whose screechy sounds can be heard as you take your seat.
This play may, as Lizzie suggested, be too depressing for a major commercial success, but I think this applies chiefly if you equate success with Broadway. I think there are enough regional theaters with audiences willing to contemplate its unadorned grittiness.
A caveat: Every character except one is a nonstop smoker. If you're sensitive to smoke, ask for a seat at least half way back since even the use of tobacco free cigarettes is likely to make you choke if you're sitting near the stage.
LINKS TO OTHER LABUTE PLAYS REVIEWED AT CurtainUp
The Mercy Seat (New York)
The Mercy Seat (London)
The Shape of Things (London & New York)
The Shape of Things (Berkshires)
For a review of Edward Bond's Saved go here.
--- London production review by Lizzie Loveridge
You never made that big an impression.
-- Cammie to her son Darren when asked what he was like as a child
Neil LaBute's plays are always worth watching for the sheer quality of the incisive writing. In his new play The Distance From Here La Bute's subject is an uncomfortable and ugly one, the neglect and violence within a deprived family which passes social problems from generation to generation as surely as if they were in one's genes. For this reason it is difficult to like. It is a deliberately painful evening in the theatre because of the lack of hope that anything will change for the better in the lives of the characters. The play is written in American youthspeak, its characters believable and the horrific situations real. La Bute does not shirk from making his audience feel stomach clenching pain.
Teenager Darrell (Mark Webber) lives with his Mom, Cammie (Amy Ryan) who looks as if she gave birth to him while still at school, and her boyfriend Rich (Enrico Colantoni). Shari (Ana Reeder), Darrell's stepsister (a child of his mother's first husband's first marriage) has a baby and is herself a young single parent who is finding it difficult to cope with the demands of a child. Shari seems to want to recreate a physically close relationship with her step brother. Rumours reach Darrell that his girl friend, Jenn (Liesel Matthews) went with another boy and was involved in making a pornographic video. A gripping and tortured central scene involves a murder the details of which I am not going to divulge, even though it makes it more difficult to discuss the play fully. Suffice it to say that it is very shocking and very well staged.
Some of LaBute's characters while being trapped in their sordid, abusive existence none the less appreciate beauty. Rich describes a moment when he was serving in the Gulf War when he saw a man flying a beautiful white kite. There are passages of fine descriptive writing which continue to haunt. Darrell remembers his father (whom we never meet) telling him about a plane flying into a flock of birds. Some of the characters divulge their dreams. Shari describes to Rich her ideal existence in an ordinary house painted an outrageous colour to infuriate the neighbours. Darrell has memories of playing happily with his step sister making a fort on the porch. His mother's reaction when he asks for stories of when he was a baby is to tell him that she cannot remember, that he did not make an impression on her as an individual.
Giles Cadle's deliberately depressing concrete set is painted in a flat green and effectively doubles as shopping mall, zoo and pet shop and swings round to reveal Darrell's mother's living room which dominated by the television and the sofa. La Bute withdrew from directing The Distance From Here as was intended because of other commitments, but David Leveaux handles the edgy scenes with assurance.
The main characters are largely American so the accents are authentic. Mark Webber, who played the boy in Mamet's American Buffalo in London and New York a couple of years ago, has enough experience to handle the difficult, central part of Darrell. Liesel Matthews gives a great performance as his girlfriend, sincere, trappped by circumstances and the victim of gossip. Jason Ritter plays Darrell's more conventional friend and follower, Tim who we always feel want to make out with Jenn. Tim's first scene in which he attacked by red ants at the zoo is very amusing. Enrico Colantoni is all man and muscle. Ana Reeder's Shari is as voluptuous as she is inadequate as a parent.
The Distance From Here will probably not be a big commercial hit. It is not as thrilling as bash or as involving as the Shape of Things but seeing it is an excellent way to make you count your blessings. Whatever . . .
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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