Misuses of Enchantment

Bad-boy playwrights McDonagh and LaBute dish it out, and critics can't get enough

Employing his usual bait-and-switch tactics, McDonagh toys with hefty themes (the plight of the artist in an autocracy, the traumatic roots of creativity, the fatalistic repetition of family violence, the content of art in a psychotic society). Yet he seems committed to only one: the inalienable freedom of the necessarily (if troublingly) amoral storyteller.

Averse to political correctness and sanctimony of any kind, McDonagh is rather vain about the special place of the artist in society. An instinct for spinning (and enjoying) tales may be, as the play suggests, hardwired into our human makeup. Yet not all stories survive—nor should they. The ones that do speak to us in coded ways about the hopes and terrors of existence. Literature lasts not because of its political or moral freight (dimensions McDonagh considers irrelevant), but because it captures and provokes consciousness in a compelling aesthetic form. While it's surprising that The Pillowman avoids any consideration of this deeper imperative, it's downright depressing that the majority of daily reviewers, suckered by McDonagh's chic (and hollow) nihilism, failed to even notice.

Equally sinister in his own vacuous fashion, LaBute is enjoying a moment of success comparable to McDonagh's. With Fat Pig earlier this season garnering some of his best reviews and This Is How It Goes being heralded for attracting Stiller to Off-Broadway, the trendy playwright (and lauded screenwriter) keeps churning out notoriously mean-spirited fables. His style is to jerry-build a situation of delicate conflict and keep pressing at it until it cracks under the weight of his polemics. Unlike McDonagh, he's drawn to hot-button issues—the stigma of obesity in Fat Pig, the sneaky racism of seemingly progressive whites in This Is How It Goes—but he's not so much interested in making moral points as in dramatizing the worst in human nature.

Calling Kafka: Billy Crudup, Zeljko Ivanek, and Jeff Goldblum in The Pillowman
photo: Joan Marcus
Calling Kafka: Billy Crudup, Zeljko Ivanek, and Jeff Goldblum in The Pillowman

Though he possesses a devilishly good ear for the clipped inanity of contemporary chitchat, he only sketches in the details of the worlds he's writing about. Everything is generalized, from the dating culture of Fat Pig, where Tom gets razzed for courting the outsize Helen, after whom the play is so delicately titled, to the small-town no-man's-land of This Is How It Goes. Obviously fully furnished realism isn't required. Yet the cartoonishly half-baked settings only make the author's vitriolic parables seem that much more suspect.

Trying to get around the problem, LaBute shakily sets up an unreliable narrator for This Is How It Goes. The character of Man (the Ben Stiller role), an ex-attorney who's returned to his Midwestern hometown to become a novelist, addresses the audience directly. The play, which revolves around his relationship with an interracial married couple he knew in high school, represents, like Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, the work he plans to write. Did the African American husband beat up his white wife? Did Man steal her away or was the husband conspiring with Man to get her off his hands? All of this uncertainty is supposed to feed into LaBute's theory of the rampant duplicity of human relations, particularly as it concerns people of different races and genders. But it's hard to accept such a noxious view when the deck's this shamelessly stacked.

Stylists of little substance, McDonagh and LaBute possess keen instincts for pacing, diabolic wit, and vicious panache. The sound and fury they unleash on our stages is clearly enough to seduce many. But shouldn't we expect it to signify more than nothing?

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