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A CurtainUp Review
This Is How It Goes
By Elyse Sommer
The role of the This Is How It Goes narrator who's also the third leg of an interracial triangle seems to be written to order for Ben Stiller. But this being a Neil LaBute play, Stiller is playing a typical part that's also more than a little against type. As any LaBute watcher can tell you, this playwright aims his verbal punches so that they will tickle your funny bone at the same time they make your mouth pop open at his daring to say what many regard as beyond the pale. In this case, the unsayable pertains to white attitudes towards African-Americans and the guy unable to keep what's on his lung from escaping to his tongue is Stiller.
To paraphrase a line from the stand-up comic style opening monologue (which may remind you of his There's Something About Mary), what you need to know for now is that Stiller rises to the challenge of going beneath the surface of his role's initial comic nerd persona. with the greatest of ease What's more, while his name may be the box office drawing card, his fellow actors, Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Peet, don't come off as chopped liver either. Wright, so memorable in Angels In America and Top Dog/Underdog, is a class act as a high scool track star turned small town wheeler dealer. Peet is lovely to look at and extremely persuasive as the high school cheerleader who twirled and pirouetted her way into a troubled relationship for all the wrong reasons. If there's a dissonant note in the casting it's that to be twelve years out of high school (as mentioned several times), these actors would have to be in their late twenties rather than their closer to forty ages.
This Is How It Goes is a deceptively simple story -- in many ways reminiscent of the early John Updike Rabbit novels. The dialogue is as usual sharply attuned to the nuances of contemporary American voices of characters who refuse to fit politically correct molds. There are the usual beautifully written monologues (notably the one in which Ms. Peet details the reasons for her marriage and Stiller's jaw-dropping reason for defining Wright with the N-word). The Narrator's re-arranging his admittedly "unreliable" rendition of the events beautifully fits what LaBute in a recent TimeOut interview described as a penchant "for giving a story going in a certain direction a 45-degree turn" in order to keep surprising himself and his audience.
The play's three characters are all former high school classmates. Stiller's unnamed Man is the only one who left the anywhere USA town. His return is not exactly triumphant. You might call him a triple-ex kind of guy -- ex-army reservist, ex-lawyer, ex-husband. When he meets Belinda in a park outside a Sears-anchored shopping mall she hardly remembers him even though they once had a group movie date. He's no longer the fatty who was known mostly for being funny. (Fat is a favorite LaBute self-image issue wether dominant as in Fat Pig or part of the larger scheme of things as is the case here and as it was in The Shape of Things).
Without going into too much plot detail, Stiller's Man may be the character whose loser persona is as easy to spot as Hester Prynne's scarlet letter A. But the teen hangups, "the desperation to fit in, and at the same time totally needing to stand out " that should have been tucked on a shelf with their high school year books, still dogs the beautiful Belinda and Cody (Wright), her rich, African-American high school boyfriend and now husband.
When the high school outsider becomes part of the life of what looks like a golden couple via a conveniently available apartment over their garage studio, it's sure to lead to some LaButian style unpleasantness, with the politically incorrect ante upped by the racial dynamic. That dynamic jumps into immediate high gear when Belinda and Cody meet their old schoolmate in a restaurant to finalize the studio apartment rental. Wright is riveting as the erstwhile star athlete carrying on the financial empire launched by his father. He's handsome and charismatic, but there's a palpable menace that seems ever ready to leap into action. Though this is not about the O.J. Simpson murder case, there are some obvious parallels to Simpson's marriage in some of the "this is how it goes" replays (one of the key players in the Simpson case did in fact live in a garage apartment on the estate).
This Is How It Goes makes wonderful use of the dramatic device of having one character move from fourth-wall breaking narration into the story which he keeps editing. It's a structure that is especially well suited for the gradual unreeling of the antagonisms and betrayals on the way to the "sort of " happy ending which is as upbeat as the end of any LaBute story can be.
George C. Wolfe besides assembling this splendid acting trio has mounted the play so that we keep being surprised by the twists and turns the story will bring. The production's visual flair owes a great deal to scenic designer Riccardo Henandez whose chessboard patterned triangular main playing area symbolizes the provocative human chess game the playwright has set up. It's a game that will challenge liberals who consider themselves too decent to let prejudice and just plain dislike of a particular individual get the upper hand of their basic decency and civility -- a civility the narrator tries to recapture when he declares "I think maybe I came off a little too, I dunno, something, in that last bit, not like myself. But then, people are so many things, faces, in a given day, maybe that's just some side of me, this other part, that doesn't get out that often, but is there. . ."
While there is that "sort of " happy ending to this game, there are no real winners -- unless you count the people who appreciate a well-performed, smartly staged and written drama.
LINKS TO OTHER LA BUTE PLAY REVIEWS
The Distance From Here (London & New York)
The Shape of Things/LaBute, Neil (London and NYC)
The Shape of Things (Berkshires)
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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Go here for details and larger image.