The Shallow End


Whatever his faults as a dramatist, Neil LaBute can usually be counted on for a good squirm or two. His spectacles of ordinary folk violently mentally abusing each other have been crude, but often effective. Despite his plays’ occasionally transgressive content, though, LaBute’s dramaturgy can be awfully old-school, especially in his latest play, In a Dark Dark House, presented by MCC. Awkward exposition, unforced confessions, and false exits (of the “Oh, and one more thing!” kind) abound here. And the play’s three-act, whodunit structure works against its meandering storyline, since no single compelling question emerges to keep the audience in suspense. Scene one introduces us to lawyer-jerk Drew (Ron Livingston), sentenced to rehab and enlisting his blue-collar, ex-con brother Terry (Frederick Weller) to corroborate that his crimes flow from suppressed childhood memories of sexual abuse. In scene two, Terry sets out for revenge against the molester, but detours instead into seducing the man’s teenage daughter (Louisa Krause). Scene three leads up to a formulaic, pseudo-Ibsen climactic confrontation in which the two brothers bare all about what “really” happened in the past. But the “revelations” here are (a) predictable to anyone watching scene one closely, and (b) exploitative in trading on sexual-abuse cliches for the sake of supposed shock value.

Remarkably, despite such shallow material, Weller turns in a rich lead performance. Blessed with gangly charm and a spitfire delivery, he makes Terry into a lovable loser-—steely-eyed, yet as brittle as his nasally Midwestern accent and pencil-thin mustache. One can’t help wonder, though, if a more menacing and physically imposing presence—like the originally cast Jason Patrick—would have better served the play; the central cradle-robbing scene would have been more appropriately cringe-inducing than the blithe romantic comedy director Carolyn Cantor lets it become. Casting an actress who actually looks 16 would have helped, too, instead of the worldly, albeit perky, Krause (a decent performer trapped in a thankless male-fantasy role).

What’s missing most are the dark, dark deeds themselves, which remain offstage or in the past, thus making LaBute’s house far too light and airy to really creep anyone out.