Now, regarding the above “Shout, shout, etc”, my lovely wife Marlene, who is a much kinder soul than I, argued that the three pages of this business I originally had was a bit much.
So fine, I pared it down to a page and a half.
Then my wise, clear-eyed editor, René, expressed the opinion that even a page and a half of “Shout, shout, dude. Shout, shout, bro –“, was excessive, and thought I should trim it further. Hence I have slashed it down to a tidy harangue of a measly 132 “shouts”.
René was right, Marlene was right.
The three full pages of “Shout-shout” would have likely come across as excessive, but it would also offer up a pretty accurate semblance of “In A Dark Dark House” now playing at Matrix Theatre on Melrose, a repetitive morass of sibling angst that would not see the light of day were it not for Neil LaBute’s name floating over the title.
This is the type of show that provokes outrage in me.
Were it the work of a first time playwright, featuring a cast of actors fresh from classes at ADA, with a director who had only done scene work on his college stage, and all produced on half a shoe string budget – well that would be one thing. But this is Neil LaBute, one of the better writers working in either film or theatre today. Has he reached that unenviable point where no one around him is willing to question the merit or stage worthiness of his output?
In Shaun Sipos and Aaron McPherson we have two actors blessed with careers that the majority of the unwashed masses who comprise the rosters of SAG and Equity would sell their souls and the souls of their beloved family pets to enjoy. Have they forgotten the need of developing fully rounded characters who reflect the narrative arc as it unfolds over the course of the play?
Larry Moss is an acclaimed director of long standing. Was he somehow blinded or intimidated by the playwright’s standing to the point where he failed in the director’s fundamental duty to serve both actors and material as mid-wife in bringing forth the best possible production?
We open on a long brick wall, an immaculate two tiered lawn, and a sign that reads “First Step Garden”. Within the confines of a mental health center, Drew (Shaun Sipos), a wealthy but disbarred lawyer, sits in a wheelchair with a head wound bandaged. Terry (Aaron McPherson) arrives, Drew’s estranged, ne’er-do-well brother, called by his desperate sibling in hopes of enlisting his help to secure his release.
First problem: McPherson enters shouting and continues shouting throughout the play whenever Sipos is in his proximity to add vocal synchronization.
Now there is nothing inherently wrong with shouting on stage. There’s shouting in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, there’s shouting in “The Odd Couple”. But in neither is it continuous. Those works also conclude with the characters most engaged in the shouting being drastically changed by the events unfolding between the opening and final curtain.
Not so “In A Dark Dark House”.
Second problem: The play opens with two estranged brothers scarred by a shared childhood of abuse, yet divided by their inabilities to face the truth of the relationship each had with the abuser. A promising start, yet, sadly, from that point on the play goes spinning forth, covering the same ground over and over, with the relentlessness of the carousal from “Strangers on a Train” during a meth binge.
Same arguments, same accusations repeated, then repeated again. The playwright has written a lot of words here, and I’ve no doubt the actors said them all (and loudly).
But words on stage do not “dialogue” make. Dialogue is designed to carry out one of two functions: propel plot or reveal character. Here the dialogue does neither, spoken without a manifest objective behind it, it whirls wildly around like a fly with but a single wing, accomplishing nothing other than the purging of silence.
Third problem: The play is divided into three acts. The first set on the clinic grounds, the second on a miniature golf course, the third in the backyard of Drew’s mansion. (Kudos to John Iacovelli for a stylish and beautifully functional set.)
From the first moments, the pair of bothers are reunited in the clinic’s garden the bond between them is plainly broken. Even after Terry’s agreeing to testify before the facilities board to help Drew obtain his release, there comes no discernible adjustment, or alteration in their attitudes towards each other. In fact there is no evolution at all in the relationship between Drew and Terry, which could perhaps be LaBute’s intent, to make us bemoan the failure of these two men to bind as family.
That could be his intent, but I doubt it. Because if an audience is meant to grieve over a lost connection, then they must be shepherded by the playwright to empathize with the characters endeavoring to come together and to realize the value of the prospective union that goes astray. LaBute provides no such funneling for his audience.
Generally LaBute populates his works with the most unlikable characters. But among them he usually places some sole individual within whom the light of humanity can at least be seen, however dim, flickering. Some of his most disturbing pieces deal with how that fragile flame of humanity can be extinguished by our own actions, condemning us to the shadows of a soul smothered by the most profound regret. (In the Company of Men jumps to mind as an example, a minor masterpiece and perhaps the world’s worst date movie.) But here LaBute allows the audience no opportunity to sympathize with, recognize, figure out or even like his characters.
In the closing act there are confessions and discoveries dredged up by the brothers from their dark history, but these appear far too late in the play, coming hard upon the other’s heel, and feel underdeveloped, almost like a last minute toss-off.
Perhaps the playwright was attempting to “explode” these late revelations on the audience, if so, then he fails as their arrival is as unexpected as finding a secret surprise in a box of Cracker Jacks.
When the betrayal each brother is guilty of is finally exposed, they are not met with stunned gasps, but muttered, “So what?”
Final problem – the big one: “In A Dark Dark House” lacks consequences.
Consequences are woven into the dialogue and plot of any well-crafted drama. These consequences supply the play’s characters, and by extension its audience, with the stepping stones by which the theatrical journey is taken.
In “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” when Martha betrays George by breaking the “rules of their game”, there are consequences: George “kills” their son.
Whatever there once was between the two brothers of LaBute’s piece was shattered long before the audience found parking, let alone their seats, and over the course of the show no hope whatsoever is presented or even hinted at that what was shattered might be healed. Therefore, sitting in the audience is not like watching a gifted sculptor carve down a block of marble until one sees the “horses”; rather it’s like watching a chain gang reduce big rocks to little rocks.
At the close of the play LaBute leaves his brothers where they started, still estranged, still scarred, and still divided by the nature of their relationships with the abuser; and he leaves the play without a journey. Director Larry Moss takes no steps at alleviating the fundamental problems in the material nor guide his actors from its pitfalls.
Anne Chernecky as Jennifer in the second act brings some welcome relief from the bellowing matches she is bookended between. This scene resonates with that disquieting timbre we are accustomed to finding in LaBute’s work, which is good. The scene also allows for the ringing in your ears to subside, which is better.
LaBute states this is his most autobiographical effort, and perhaps therein lies the fault. When dealing with episodes mired in the morass of individual memories, the challenge to the artist is to convey, by dramatic means, the required references and information that permits the most personal occurrence to be experienced publically, so that a private pain may be shared. LaBute has done that in the past, and shockingly well.
Audiences like to be shocked.
They don’t like being bored.
The evening is presented with no break. This is not done as a method of maintaining the dramatic tension, but from the sad realization that a goodly portion of the audience arriving for “In A Dark Dark House” would probably not “overstay their welcome” by returning after intermission.
Did I mention there was some shouting in this play?
In A Dark Dark House
7657 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90046s
(west of Stanley Ave., between Fairfax and La Brea)
Performances: July 26 – Aug. 31 Thursday at 8 p.m.: Aug. 14, 21, 28 Fridays at 8 p.m.: Aug. 15, 22, 29 Saturdays at 8 p.m.: Aug. 16, 23, 30 Sundays at 3 p.m.: Aug. 17, 24, 31
Tickets: General Admission: $34.99
Note: “In A Dark Dark House” contains adult language and subject matter and is recommended for mature audiences.