Theater

Black and White and Murky All Over

Eric Feldman, Benton Greene and Anne Bowles in Neil LaBute's
Eric Feldman, Benton Greene and Anne Bowles in Neil LaBute's "This Is How It Goes," a gimmicky comedy-drama about race, making its regional debut at Studio Theatre. (By Scott Suchman -- Studio Theatre)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 9, 2007

As the notorious comedy-club video of Michael Richards demonstrated, racist rants can spew at the most unlikely times, from the most surprising sources.

That subject happens to be of intense interest to Neil LaBute, who has made the lingering shadow of bigotry the focus of "This Is How It Goes," an overwrought comedy-drama having its regional debut at Studio Theatre.

Just how ingrained white racism might be is the thread LaBute seeks to unravel in this story of a gnarly love triangle, set in an unnamed Midwestern suburb. No doubt this is a topic for incisive theater. The problem is that a sometime-clever dramatist proves too clever for his own good: He constructs the piece as a baroque contrivance and, in so doing, loses any claim to eloquence or even insight.

Or even, for that matter, credibility. The misogynist conspiracy that might (or might not) be at the core of the narrative doesn't come close to passing the truth test. To divulge it in any other respect would be churlish. But the conclusion LaBute concocts for his story is so clunky and disappointing that you're made to feel cheated, having invested so much time in such a tortured and windy affair.

LaBute is like some backstage professor of the dark arts. He's less inclined to see the beauty in humankind than the beast. His metier is the cruel social regimen of modern life and, in particular, the degree to which we base assessments of others on outward appearance. In "The Shape of Things," that took the form of a female grad student who seduces a disheveled nerd and, purely for the sake of a master's thesis, persuades him to undergo plastic surgery. In "Fat Pig," a trim and handsome young man falls for an obese woman and then drops her flat after the peer pressure gets to him.

"Fat Pig" was compelling because it created a raw, emotional framework for the examination of an omnipresent bias. "This Is How It Goes" addresses another facet of prejudice grounded in looks, with the premise that the generation coming of age is not as enlightened about race as it professes to be. In fact, LaBute posits here quite pessimistically that there's an aspect of racism that's irretrievably inbred, that resides at something like the cellular level.

"This Is How It Goes," however, is afflicted with an advanced case of coyness. As related to us by its central character, an ingratiating young white guy (Eric Feldman) who never tells us his name, this play is the story of his fateful encounter with Belinda, a beautiful blonde (Anne Bowles) on whom he had a heavy crush in high school. She is now married to Cody (Benton Greene), the charismatic onetime star of the school's track team. That Cody is black and rich will figure in the story's machinations, especially after Young White Guy moves into the garage apartment that the couple is renting out.

Feldman's character also provides the essential information early on that a lot of what he's about to report to us might be a lie. "I think I might end up being an unreliable narrator here," are his exact words. They reverberate disturbingly over the next hour and 45 minutes. But to what effect? Is he shading the truth because he wants us to like him, or because he's harboring deeply antisocial resentments that he wants to gloss over, or simply because he's an aspiring writer with a teasing imagination?

The riddles that the character poses are elaborated on in meta-theatrical games: an explanation of how Belinda got a black eye, for instance, is played out in two alternative versions. The rationale, though, for sitting through these permutations is never linked to anything substantive. The characters' motivations are defined only on the most superficial terms. Cody confesses marrying a white girl for the trophy value; Belinda admits she went for a black man because the choice was exotic. At times, the play seems to revel in shock for shock's sake, as in the fantasy conjuring of Belinda's commentary on penis size.

But fundamentally, what's dramatized here is mostly evasion. Director Paul Mullins, who displayed craftiness and sensitivity in Studio's successful staging of "Fat Pig" last year, has significantly less to work with on this occasion, and it shows. The production is designed by Debra Booth to exude grim suburban sleekness: A movable white wall is used as a screen on which to project images of big-box stores and leafy arbors. Michael Chybowski's bright lighting illuminates a world that lacks much in the way of soft focus.

Greene, Feldman and Bowles are all attractive players, and together they create some artful tension. But the mysteries of racial hatred that LaBute attempts to examine remain too elusive on this unwieldy evening.

It's instructive to note that LaBute alludes repeatedly in "This Is How It Goes" to Alfred Hitchcock and Thomas Hardy, both of whom were, among other things, master spinners of plot. This would have gone much smoother if the playwright had taken a truer frame or page from either.

This Is How It Goes, by Neil LaBute. Directed by Paul Mullins. Set, Debra Booth; lighting, Michael Chybowski; costumes, Kate Turner-Walker; sound, Neil McFadden. About 1 hour and 45 minutes. Through Feb. 11 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit http://www.studiotheatre.org.


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