Theater attracts the obsessional. Who else could possibly enjoy the endless repetitions that rehearsal requires, could thrill to the rigors of a cue-to-cue? Perhaps craft tables ought to stock Paxil near the throat lozenges. Recently, two plays turned their diagnostic gaze on two such personalities. In Neil LaBute’s The Break of Noon, at MCC, office drone John Smith (no relation to the Pocahontas romancer, perhaps some to Mormonism’s founder) becomes infatuated with the voice of God. In Kneehigh’s The Red Shoes, at St. Ann’s Warehouse, the heroine is captivated by the scarlet footwear. The moral of these stories is that you can always get what you want, with unhappy consequences.
God rarely appears in Neil LaBute’s plays, though his scripts typically include much devilry. Yet his latest explicitly concerns that Father figure. In the midst of a uniquely brutal workplace shooting, Smith (David Duchovny, haggard and handsome) hears a heavenly voice. Just what that voice says changes according to whom he is explaining it. At the murder scene, he tells a cop that God said, “Remain here and you will be safe, John.” To a catty talk-show host (Tracee Chimo), he reveals the Lord’s words as “We should try and be good. You know, like ‘kind.’ ” Later, before an audience of the faithful, he will change them again.
Though Smith preaches the gospel to his fellow men, this doctrinal kindness doesn’t extend to women. He insults his ex-wife (Amanda Peet), antagonizes his mistress (Peet again, with bigger hair), defies the television host, and reduces a perfectly nice prostitute (Chimo in a maid outfit) to tears. (If LaBute does not relish being labeled anti-woman, someday he might write a scene in which his protagonist declines to shout at one.) It seems that his obsession hasn’t made Smith any holier; it has merely provided greater scope for his arrogance and venality.
Several characters accuse Smith of sham faith, but LaBute and director Jo Bonney leave the question of his sincerity ambiguous. Too often LaBute has relied on easy shock tactics—cruelty, profanity, extreme misanthropy. They’re present here, but he also introduces a topic that might legitimately distress the liberal audience who attend his plays: sudden and serious conversion.
Kneehigh director Emma Rice converted many to her brand of fairy-tale theatrics with Brief Encounter, now running on Broadway. With The Red Shoes, which she adapted from the gruesome Hans Christian Andersen story, Rice presents a work no less skillful, if far more grim.
Four actors and two musicians—all sporting the shaved heads and filthy underwear of concentration camp habitués—and a fright-wigged narrator perform the tale of a girl quite smitten with the titular shoes (here a rather clunky pair of clogs). Soon the desired slippers begin to control her, forcing her to dance unceasingly. They cause her so much pain she pleads with a butcher to cut her feet off in spectacularly grisly fashion. (The producers recommend this show for tots 8 and up; I don’t.) Toward the play’s close, the narrator murmurs, “Can anyone of us ever escape our obsessions?” Likely not. But the next time I see a pair of Louboutins on sale, I’m running the other way.