Recognizable Grown-Ups

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in-a-dark-dark-house.jpgI have never really understood the appeal of Neil LaBute, and I am very hard-pressed to understand the psyche of a Neil LaBute fan (of which there are many out there, I believe).  I have always been struck by how mercilessly cruel his writing often is, with no satisfactory pay-off for the audience or for the characters at the end of the piece which would justify all the heartlessness that preceded it.  Unlike the characters in Adam Rapp’s plays for example, which, despite their dark thoughts and actions, have that tinge of melancholy and vulnerability that make them sympathetic and ultimately redeem them, there is nothing redeeming in LaBute’s characters.  I can never be anything but repulsed at the cocky yuppie in In the Company of Men who makes a bet with his buddy that he can make their deaf co-worker fall in love with him or at the temperamental artist-student in The Shape of Things who uses her plain Joe security guard boyfriend as the subject of an art installation without him knowing it or at the clueless hunk in Fat Pig who falls in love with an overweight woman but dumps her because he finally realizes that he is too weak-too much of the stereotype of a jock/yuppie/modern American man/call it what you will-to accept getting it on with someone who is 300 lbs.  I mean, unless you have an incorrigible case of schadenfreude, who could? The Profiles Theatre production a couple of years ago of Fat Pig, which I found mean-spirited (unfortunately, I think I was the only one who detested it, since the show ran for months and got a slew of Jeff nominations) made me decide that I was done giving Neil LaBute a chance.  I was so over this bully-in-the-playground-laughing-uncontrollably-mentality masquerading as edgy, thought-provoking playwriting.  So I sort of surprised myself when I made the spontaneous decision on the evening of Easter Sunday to see a preview of the Profiles production of In A Dark, Dark House.  Well, spontaneity sometimes brings unexpected results.

Blame it on curiosity.  I was curious about the fact that Neil LaBute actually gave Profiles the rights for the first performance of In A Dark, Dark House outside of New York City (the off-Broadway premiere garnered typically mixed reviews).  I was also curious about the casting of Hans Fleischmann, the really interesting Chicago actor, who I thought created such an intelligent portrayal for a character that could easily have been played brutishly, as the sodomizing soldier in Red Orchid’s production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted last year.  I wanted to see what he would do with a mean, overgrown, frat boy character that typically populate LaBute’s dramaturgical world.  I’m glad curiosity got the better of me, since In A Dark, Dark House shattered any pre-conceptions I had of a “Neil LaBute play”.  It is harrowing, emotionally engaging, provocative – it powerfully depicts recognizable grown-ups struggling with complicated emotions brought about by fraternal and male bonds.

Fleischmann and Darrell W. Cox (Profile’s Associate Artistic Director and erstwhile leading man) play estranged brothers brought back together by the need of one for the other to help him out of a predicament.  Drew (Fleischmann), the younger brother is a wealthy lawyer with a drug habit.  In order to get out of an upscale rehab facility/mental institution, he enlists his brother Terry’s (Cox) help to support his memories of being abused as a child by an older teenage male friend who had also previously abused Terry; Terry is now living a hard-scrabble life as a security guard which is quite the reverse of Drew’s affluent one.  To say anything more is to give away the plot of the play, but suffice it to say that Terry also at one point encounters the teenage daughter (played precociously by Allison Torem, an actual high school junior) of the abuser, and this meeting provides several of the important revelations at the play’s climax.  LaBute delivers a lot of exceptional writing in this play, and effectively probes the foundations of male bonding, the nature of forgiveness, the impact of family ties and loyalties.  More importantly, by creating multi-dimensional characters such as Drew and Terry, he paints a terribly provocative and riveting study of men who are confused and unable to define and express their emotions for other men.  Drew and Terry are scared, flawed, struggling with deep-seated emotions they don’t know how to describe- which is shocking for me, since in all other LaBute plays I have seen, the male characters have more often than not been one-dimensionally brutish and arrogant bordering on the misogynistic.  In A Dark, Dark House is a terrific work from a mature, reflective writer.

These characters are brought to vivid life by the two superlative actors.  Finally, I come across a Cox performance I truly like (I have found him, shall we say, a little overbaked from Fat Pig to Blackbird to Orange Flower Water at the Steppenwolf).  For me, he absolutely gets Terry’s insecurities, inarticulateness, and terrible fright in feelings he cannot accurately define.  I think Hans Fleischmann continues to be one of the young Chicago actors to watch and gives a terrific performance as Drew, effectively navigating diverse and complex emotions from line to line, moment to moment, from arrogance to cowardice to hurt to hero-worship.  I am continuously struck by the fact that, like Jodie Foster, he always comes across, regardless of the role, as an intelligent person- which is a great thing.  It’s a cerebral performance that acts as an effective counterpoint to the more emotional, more gut-wrenching performance from Darrell Cox.  And as creepy as it sounds, that wrestling on the grass thing in the first scene between the two of them (Cox beefy and hairy, Fleischmann slight and smooth-faced) is one of the most highly-charged homoerotic scenes I have seen recently on the Chicago stage.

Chris Jones also uses the word schadenfreude in his review!  In A Dark, Dark House runs at the Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway st., until May 11.  See it- it’s a great example of a Chicago theatre storefront experience!

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