Wednesday, October 04, 2006


I saw Neil LaBute's latest play Wrecks last night and was going to write a full-length 700-1,000-word essay on the show until I found this reader review in the New York Times that said it better than I ever could:

"In a nutshell, WRECKS is a meeting of the weakest in modern playwriting (Mr. LaBute) and the best in modern performance (Mr. Harris).

Seriously, I couldn't have put it better myself.

Wrecks is a one-person show starring Ed Harris about a grieving widower spilling his guts to the audience. At the end of the day, it's a weak show performed by an amazing actor.

And Ed Harris truly is amazing and captivating to watch live. I've always been a fan of Mr. Harris (seriously, is there anyone here who doesn't think he's an amazing actor?), so it was a thrill to see him perform in person for the first time. After seeing Faith Healer I was reminded how tough it is for an actor/actress to retain an audience's attention when reciting a monologue that clocks in at over an hour (and Wrecks is about a buck twenty in length), and he does so with ease and grace. Even with some of the more hackneyed anecdotes and pieces of writing in the script, I always had the impression that Mr. Harris was saying his own words. Perfectly at ease on the stage, he even kept his poise when forced to provide some impromptu ad-libbing for the sake of an audience member...

(At one point in the show, he pulled out a pack of cigarettes and asked the audience if anyone minded. One woman in the second row asked if he could refrain from smoking. He looked at her, smiled and said, "Are you really going to tell a widower that he can't have something? I was really just trying to be polite." That tore the audience up. Fifteen minutes later, when he pulled the pack out again, he looked at the audience member and said, "I'll wait. Fair enough?" Not once during this did he appear to be phased or breaking character.)

...which is something you don't necessarily see from actors whose bread-and-butter is film. Mr. Harris is perfectly at home performing on the stage and was an absolute delight to watch. His performance reminded me of why I love theatre.

As for the play itself, well...

As far as Neil LaBute's work is concerned, I'm quite ambivalent. I admired his first cinematic efforts In The Company of Men (which was previously a play) and Your Friends and Neighbors (which wasn't). I even put The Distance From Here on my first "Top Ten" list for Jamespeak. I also admire anyone so prolific in a medium where foot-dragging and indefinite "development" is the norm rather than an annoying anomaly.

But then, when Scott Walters writes, "Labute is deeply dishonest...moralistic AND voyeuristic, masochistic AND smug," and Isaac Butler points out, "The problem with...LaBute is that there are playwrights out there who really are interested in limning the depths of what we're capable of, psychologically, spiritually, politically, physically etc. ... I think this dishonesty of the more mainstream versions of this outlook...tarnish the reputations in a guilt-by-association way of [his] betters," it's hard — if not impossible — to argue otherwise.

The problem with the script of Wrecks is that when all's said and done there doesn't seem to be much to it. I left the theatre after Mr. Harris's curtain call thinking, "Oh, that's it? That's where we were going with that?" It doesn't particularly say anything that hasn't been said before by many other plays that are, quite frankly, much better.

I absolutely wasn't sold on the ending (and to be fair, no, I won't spoil it for you). It seemed very tacked-on, as if Mr. LaBute felt obligated to give the show one of those "sick and twisted" endings. It doesn't work. And I'm unsure of how Mr. LaBute wanted the audience to react (the audience I saw it with didn't react at all). Are we supposed to be horrified at the "revelation" at the end? Sympathetic? Disturbed? A little bit of all three, I suppose. I really wasn't any. I will say that regardless of the intended reaction (again, there was visibly none with the audience I attended with), Mr. Harris's character remained likable. I have to admit, I have no idea if that's due to the script, the direction or the actor.

(Outside the theatre, I figured out the pun of the play title, and all I could think of was, "Oh. I get it. [Groan.]")

To be fair to Mr. LaBute, this is his least blatantly misanthropic play to date and it's impressive to see that he's covering new territory (I've always given Mr. LaBute more of the benefit of the doubt than many of my blogger colleagues after seeing his movie Nurse Betty, which made me think that he's more than just a one-trick pony [as opposed to, say, Todd Solondz]). Also, although he does cover some of the same ground that he's covered before (seemingly nice guys being repellent in the context of dealing with their significant others), the sense of sadistic glee that you find in much of his other work is refreshingly absent here.

So again, I couldn't have put it better than "nycwriter623:" a meeting of the weakest in modern playwriting and the best in modern performance. If you go see Wrecks expecting great writing or a new entry into the realm of Great American Theatre, you'll be sorely disappointed. If you go see Wrecks expecting a great performance from a masterful actor, you won't be.

Expecting that dollar from Mr. Harris,

James "Total Wreck" Comtois

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Blogger parabasis said...

To answer your question, James, I don't like Ed Harris. i find him dull and incapable of vulnerability. I say this having seen him both on stage and on screen. But to each his own, eh?

Oh, and thanks for the shout out, my friend!

3:27 PM  
Blogger YS said...

I have this dream that the blogosphere will be able to finally adjust the goggles of the critical establishment and let them see the naked emperor that is Neil Labute.

Every time one of his plays premieres in New York, I cringe at the thought of how, in two to three years, the regions will be flooded with multiple productions. And I shudder at thought of having to repeadetly read the phrase, "our moralist."

There is one thing he knows how to do:

He knows how to construct dialogue in which there is high stakes and good subtext. Actors loooooove this stuff. Hence all the stars that like appearing in his plays. This also why you will see young companies producing production after production of The Shape of Things. I think we have had four productions of Shape of Things in the last four years.

I am so glad when I read comments like yours, Isaac's, Scott Walters, etc. They make me feel saner.

Sorry to vent.

5:32 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Not a problem, YS. This is indeed the place to vent.

As I had told Isaac earlier, although I was still giving LaBute the benefit of the doubt (his movies Nurse Betty and Possession gave me reason to believe that he actually had more things to say than just “Men Are Rotten And Like To Treat Women As Dogs”), I may be joining the LaBute nay-saying camp sooner than expected.

I do have to say I’m a little unclear as to what you mean by “adjust[ing] the goggles of the critical establishment,” since the critical establishment does not influence my tastes or play going habits. As in, at all. I don’t think I’ve ever read the New York Times theatre section (or The Boston Globe’s, when I lived in Beantown) to figure out what I’m going to see or what plays and playwrights to look out for.

In other words, forgive my ignorance, but is Neil LaBute being hailed as the Master of American Theatre or Our Moralist right now? If so, first off: eww. Second, that’s news to me. Honest.

10:16 AM  
Blogger YS said...


In a word, yes. It is very common for a theatre review of Labute to use the word "moralist."

What I meant by the goggles remark is more akin to pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes.

I want to write a longer essay titled The Ponderous Success of Neil Labute, but I can't muster enough energy.

On the plus side, Feingold in the Village Voice calls it as it is with Labute.

4:28 PM  
Blogger YS said...

Just as follow up. Here is quote from the New York Times review:

"Whether you gasp or merely sigh wearily will depend on your familiarity with, and fondness for, the prolific Mr. LaBute’s bleak moral vision of humankind."

emphasis mine.

The review is not a rave though.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Gotcha. Well, it seems that after a quick perusal of previous reviews in The New York Times... seems as though Mr. LaBute is no friend of the publication. His most favorable reviews are at best luke-warm.

4:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks for spending so much time discussing my plays and reviews. do let me know when and where i can come see some of your work on stage, jamespeak. i'm sure it will be very enlightening...

neil labute

11:09 PM  
Anonymous Anne said...

Actually, Your Friends and Neighbors started out as a play called Lepers.

9:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

YS is correct, LaBute does construct dialogue in which there are high stakes and good subtext. He also is a master of the monologue and in the end, he just writes good stuff. You don't have to like it all, however, nothing wrong with giving credit where it's due.

His voice will be remembered in the end.

9:40 PM  

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