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A CurtainUp Review

To be loved is never wrong, or to love a person. . .I'll tell you what. . .love's a pretty special creature, no matter what form it comes in.—Edward

Ed Harris in Wrecks
Ed Harris in Wrecks
(Photo: Michael Daniels)
The programs handed out at the Anspacher Theater include a little prayer card with a reproduction of a painting on one side entitled "Mater Purissima " and a Hail Mary in memory of Mary Josephine Carr on the other. The death of this woman has brought a host of people to the funeral home where she lies in her coffin. We hear the low din of voices, but the only mourner we ever meet is Mary Josephine's husband Edward. With Ed Harris to portray him, no other actors are needed to make what may sound like a depressing and underpopulated play add up to a vivid, often funny, seventy minutes.

Wrecks seems an apt title for Neil LaBute's latest play which premiered in Cork, Ireland last year (also with Harris) and has now opened at the Public Theater. After all, LaBute has made a reputation with wrecking his characters' lives. With advance publicity hinting that this is as much a confession as a grieving widower's reflections on the lost love of his life, I expected Mary Josephine, or Jo-Jo as Edward called her, to have died in some sort of violent car wreck for which he was responsible. When he explains that she died of lung cancer (a second hand smoke victim, with chain smoking Edward next in line to meet the grim reaper), I thought maybe he wrecked the car to save her from a long, painful death. Wrong, wrong wrong.

While the script actually includes a near car wreck, that's not all that pivotal an incident. This is very much a love story, though that's not to say that LaBute has gone soft and given up on challenging our concept of acceptable social behavior. Harris's monologue is full of warmth and humor but it has a decidedly LaButian twist.

For all its arrival with a surprising bang, that twist will seem more obvious than surprising once you reconsider what has gone before.

Since O. Henry's day, stories with surprise finishes have been something of a dilemma for book and drama critics. How can you talk about the writer's cleverness in building a trail to the twisty ending without spoiling the surprise? To avoid falling into this trap, I'll put my comments about LaBute's finale and its effect on this whole enterprise into a yellow box following the production notes. I suggest that you don't read it until after you've seen the play.

In the meantime, whether you respond with a "wow!" or a thumbs down to Wreck's ending, you'll find the play tremendously watchable. LaBute is no stranger to the monologue format (his first big stage hit, bash: latter day saints, strung together three short monologues) and Harris, with his intense blue eyes and dimple, is a forceful actor— dynamic enough to be the sole attraction. As Edward Carr, the dead woman's husband, he manages to make us forget the movie star (Pollock, John Glenn in The Right Stuff, etc.) and accept him as a rather ordinary sixty-year-old Midwesterner with an old-fashioned conservative bent, a man who loved his wife with extraordinary passion and devotion. He admits that he's not a fellow with the touch of a poet, yet he talks about his Mary Joe or Jo-Jo as "absolute heaven come to earth and squeezed into human form."

Carr's ruminations take place in the funeral parlor's ante room with the coffin to which he has come to get away from the people paying their respects. Thus the audience becomes privvy to his inner thoughts and the memories he's unlikely to include in the next day's eulogy.

Those memories take us through his life, marriage and the successful classic car leasing business he and his Jo-Jo built. Gradually, the basically familiar story of a middle America couple is peppered with some out of the ordinary details — his foster home childhood, her being fifteen years older and unhappily married when they meet (he a twenty-five year-old virgin, she a mother of two teen sons), Their marriage, once the hurdle of husband number one is cleared, is loving in every way — they are partners in business, the sex is wonderful and they have two children.

Harris is so vibrant and likeable — by turns funny, reflective and touching— that there's nothing saccharine, depressing or boring about all this. LaBute who is directing his own work has staged it with more dramatic and visual flair than you find in most solo plays. The coffin, the flowers, the pictures and the few seats are all in a striking grisaille palette (bravo to designer Klara Zieglerova) and Harris connects with the audience that surrounds the stage on all three sides without seeming to make a conscious effort to do so.

Harris's confidences build toward his inevitable final moments with Jo-Jo and the revelation of a tragic secret that prompted the unhappy first marriage and haunted her even during the loving second one. But I'm not breaking my promise about not giving that final twist away. That secret, like everything Ed tells us, is a clue of sorts to the theme driving LaBute's surprise ending. It's cleverly done but you'll have to see the play to decide whether it leaves you satisfied or disappointed that all the sympathy Harris built up has been squandered in the interest of cleverness. (Review continued in yellow box below-- to be read AFTER you see Wreck)

Links to other Neil LaBute reviews:
Bash (London)
The Distance From Here (London & New York)
The Shape of Things(London and NYC)
The Shape of Things (Berkshires)
Fat Pig
This Is How It Goes (Public Theater, NY)

Written and directed by Neil La Bute
Cast: Ed Harris
Sets and Costumes: Klara Zieglerova
Lights: Christopher Akerlind,
Sound: Robert Kaplowitz
Running Time: 80 minutes without intermission
Public/Anspacher Theater,425 Lafayette, 212-967-7555
From September 26 to November 9; opening 10/10/06..Tuesday at 7:00pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00pm, Saturday and Sunday at 2:00pm
Tickets: $50, with a limited number of $20 Rush Tix available at the box office one hour prior to curtain.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on October 8 press matinee

The Review. . .continued

Okay. . . so you've returned to this page after your visit to the Public Theater and you recognize all those little crumbs Neil LaBute has tossed your way as clues. All have been carefully injected into Harris's monologue to turn Wrecks into a modern day oedipal drama.

The first clue is the title. Say it out loud and you've got Wrecks as in Oedipus Rex. Take another look at the picture on that prayer card and the title, quot;Mater Purissima," is an immediate tip-off to the real relationship between Edward and Jo-Jo.

Yes indeed, Ed is himself the real secret — the son Jo-Jo bore and abandoned after being raped by an uncle. And so, we have LaBute assuming the mantle of a Greek dramatist with a love affair that embodies one of our last taboos: mother and son incest. The murders and suicides so typical of Greek drama are here carried out with cigarettes. LaBute's theme: Love, no matter what it's form, is never wrong. His love didn't hurt anyone but brought great joy. (And greedy manufacturers hooking us with their deadly products, worse than this hush-hush kind of love?)

I'm afraid I can't quite buy the playwright's premise. As Edward felt he was entitled to find out who his mother was, he is denying vital information to his children who are, after all, the result of two generations of incest. Just as troublesome is the fact that once you put all the pieces in perspective, all that endearing charm projected by Harris and some of the more touching parts of his oration seem strictly a method for achieving that slam-bang ending. Consequently, the likeable and sincere Oedipus-like Edward comes off a bit artificial — the playwright's tool for forcing us to rethink social taboos.

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