An elaborate contrivance carefully dressed up to look like slapdash improvisation, Neil LaBute’s This Is How It Goes touches on enough subjects to avoid coming to grips with any of them. By the end of its lengthy-feeling 90 minutes, you’re wondering if its pseudo-improvisational pose isn’t a setup concealing the absence of a play. The place is “a small town in America.” (They’re all alike, you know.) Cody (Jeffrey C. Wright) and Belinda (Amanda Peet), high school sweethearts, have been married a decade. Back into their life comes the story’s self-described “unreliable narrator” (Ben Stiller), whose name we never learn. Cody owns a prosperous chain of stores; the couple lives in a mansion. They lease the narrator, a high school acquaintance who’s mysteriously junked a law career and wants to become a writer (uh-oh), the guest flat over their second garage. Tensions ensue, in the course of which the marriage breaks up and the narrator finds himself in a new situation.
LaBute fancies up this not particularly exciting story partly by not telling it—the narrator shows us alternative versions of some scenes—and partly by revealing a second, clandestine story behind it. Everybody turns out to have a private agenda, everybody’s involved in some secret deal: It’s a conspiracy theorist’s view of life. That we’re not interested enough in the first story to be shocked by the second doesn’t make the contrivance any more convincing. LaBute is clever at inventing don’t-go-there scenes that shock the conventionally minded: His man of color is a wife abuser and a schemer; his white narrator indulges in racist rants and then explains that he didn’t mean them. But the seeming realism, like everything else onstage, is only a posture: We never learn enough trustworthy data about the narrator to make his racism seem anything but a trick LaBute’s playing on us; what we learn about his landlords hardly seems to parse as fact. A wealthy couple with a hilltop mansion who lunch at Arby’s and shop at Wal-Mart? Something’s wrong with this picture. George C. Wolfe’s neatly calibrated production keeps the factitiousness moving smoothly. Peet is sweetly vulnerable, Wright suavely self-aggrandizing, Stiller alternately grating and ingratiating in just the right proportions. But LaBute’s just like Hollywood in Oscar Levant’s famous remark: Strip away the phony tinsel and you find the real tinsel underneath.