It’s hard to imagine the same universe produced two playwrights as seemingly opposed as Neil LaBute and Naomi Wallace. In this corner we have LaBute, a convert to Mormonism and Mametisms, whose three one-act plays just opened under the title Bash. LaBute gained notoriety in 1996 for his vengeful film In the Company of Men, in which two corporate wolves descend on an innocent typist. His work pushes the envelope of white male insensitivity, alienation, and cruelty. It is oversimplified and mean-spirited, aiming to shock the liberals who make up its audience. Judging from his success, it seems to be working.
In the other corner, we have Marxist-raised, Kentucky-poet-turned-playwright Wallace and her new work, The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek. Wallace’s magic social realism recalls Brecht and Odets. In her Obie-winning One Flea Spare, two street people fleeing the bubonic plague find themselves trapped in a room with two aristocrats; gradually the barriers of class and gender begin to break down between the four of them. Her play Slaughter City documents the struggle to create a union at a rural abattoir. The disconnected, gossamer speech patterns of Wallace’s characters makes them seem to float around their subject matter, complementing her left-leaning, academic tropes—borders between identities, social justice, and gender politics.
Both playwrights push their agendas so emphatically, however, that each suffers the same great loss—complex characters. LaBute reduces the human urges behind the friendly facades his lonely figures present into three main categories: Let’s get revenge, We want blood, or Fuck everyone, let’s fuck. He wishes to make some point about the erosion of morality among white Americans, but the protagonists of Bash are more than amoral—they have an emotional shallowness and selfishness that read as textbook psychopathology, not human nature.
The first two monologues of Bash verge on the high-concept. “Medea Redux” and “Iphigenia in Orem” are contemporary confessionals infused with Greek themes, a sophomoric inspiration leading me to suspect that LaBute conceived these plays back in college. In “Medea Redux,” Calista Flockhart is miscast as a tough young woman who spills her guts about the affair she had at 13 with one of her teachers, a liaison that later leads her to murder their teenage son—just for revenge. Shocking, yes, and possible, but hardly the universal statement to which LaBute aspires. Fourteen years and her son means less to her than vengeance over statutory rape? She’s a psycho. So is the similar meanie in the hotel room of “Iphigenia in Orem.” Brilliantly portrayed by Ron Eldard, this freak-a-zoid lets his infant daughter suffocate so he can get the sympathy he thinks will save his job.
In “A Gaggle of Saints,” Flockhart and the marvelously smarmy Paul Rudd relate a tandem monologue about a fancy evening out in the city during which Rudd’s character severely beats up a gay man—the unwelcome counternarrative to Stop Kiss. Remorse and reflection don’t exist in LaBute’s sterile universe. Confession is merely self-justification, not a means to redemption. If you ask these vacuous wind-up toys—and their creator—”Why are you telling me this?” the only answer you’ll get is: “For the cheap thrill.”
LaBute’s liberal-offending impetus might be like a roller-coaster ride at Mametland, but a cheap thrill is a thrill nonetheless. Wallace’s The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, in constrast, offers less in the way of excitement. It’s 1936, and 15-year-old Dalton Chance meets a plucky tomboy railroad enthusiast named Pace Creagan under a train bridge. As the two begin a complicated metaromance, Pace attempts to teach the confused boy a trick best described as “run across the bridge before the train hits you.” Brett, Pace’s last boyfriend, was sliced in two when he tried. The scenes jump around a bit in time, and before long we see Dalton in jail, blaming himself for the accident that kills Pace.
Director Lisa Peterson’s experimental touches—she has actors toss dinner plates to one another and blow feathers around—are beautiful, but they tend to upstage the text, which needs all the support it can get. As the kids, Alicia Goranson is winningly understated and Michael Pitt is surely the next Leo DiCaprio, for what it’s worth. But where Wallace’s devotees see “poetry” in her writing, I see lack of attention to detail. Wallace combines a familiar romanticization of poverty with flowing, decentralized characterizations. George C. Wolfe, on the eve of producing One Flea Spare, praised Wallace’s eloquent use of “the space around the language.” After hearing language like, “All my life I wanted to say something that mattered!” I’d like to hear more space. By the end, when Dalton and Pace play a sex game where they switch genders but don’t touch, I’ve started reaching for my Eve Sedgwick textbooks. And wait a second—didn’t Erin Cressida Wilson write a better version of this play several years ago called Crossdressing in the Depression