Neil LaBute writes a lot about cruelty. His 1992 play In the Company of Men showed two businessmen conspiring to break the heart of a deaf female coworker, 2001’s The Shape of Things depicted a shy young man completely redesigned by a new girlfriend as an experiment, and his 2004 play Fat Pig has a budding romance nipped in the bud because a guy’s friends keep giving him a hard time about how overweight his new girlfriend is. His work often leaves him open to charges of misanthropy. I first saw the 1997 film of Company of Men on a video double bill with I Know What You Did Last Summer, which was by far the kinder movie of the two.
The Bay Area is getting more than its share of LaButality this season. The San Francisco Playhouse is now playing reasons to be pretty, and Aurora Theatre will follow with This Is How It Goes in June. The surprise of reasons, which gave LaBute his Broadway debut in 2008, is that it’s almost an upbeat play. It isn’t exactly nice, but it’s much less horrible than usual. A guy is overheard saying that his girlfriend’s face is “just regular” compared to a pretty new coworker, and someone tells his girlfriend what he said.
The hapless guy in question is Greg, who works the night shift boxing consumer products in some kind of factory. In producing director Susi Damilano’s brisk staging at SF Playhouse, he’s played by Craig Marker, who also starred in LaBute’s The Shape of Things at Aurora in 2002 and is back for more mistreatment. Marker’s Greg seems like a nice enough guy, albeit with a knack for saying the wrong thing and then making things worse by getting defensive about it. He’s quietly befuddled and just trying to get along, you can see the frustration building as people keep dumping on him and he tries to be cool with it, and you wonder how long he’s going to be able to take it.
We first see Lauren English’s Stephanie as she’s laying into Greg for what he said. Oddly enough, this is the second play in a row at the Playhouse that opens with a screaming fight and breakup in the bedroom, after Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherfucker with the Hat. Steph is furious, fuming with hurt and cussing Greg out at length, pausing only to correct him about the fact that Wonder Woman doesn’t have super-hearing. (A woman after my own heart!) Greg isn’t exactly making things any better by making light of the comment, with lame excuses that “It wasn’t any kind of comparison. It was more like a point of contrast,” and that the point was that he wouldn’t trade her for anything. But it’s too late; the damage is done, and he’s made her feel ugly.
Of course, English’s Steph is very pretty, but that’s not the point. The especially frustrating thing is that Greg wasn’t even checking out this new coworker, whom we never see. It was his buddy Kent who was talking how hot she was, and Greg was just being agreeable. What’s worse, it was Kent’s wife Carly, a security guard at their workplace, who ratted Greg out to Steph, giving Kent a pass for whatever it was that he said. Patrick Russell’s Kent is an infuriating jackass—boorish, superficial and duplicitous—the kind of guy who does whatever he wants and then blames it on whoever he does it to. But he and Greg are old friends, and Greg’s default mode is to agree with whatever someone says so he can go back to reading his book (Poe, Hawthorne, Swift, Washington Irving).
Jennifer Stuckert’s Carly is coolly abrasive and uncomfortable around Greg, whom she seems to just plain dislike for some reason. She and Kent are always hot and heavy in the breakroom when they’re together, but as soon as they’re apart Kent starts talking crap about her. No wonder she’s so moody, hardly able to admit to herself what’s making her uncomfortable. The timing was a bit off in her first scene with Greg on opening night, but on the whole she’s an exquisitely uncomfortable office nemesis for him.
Artistic director Bill English’s revolving set cleverly switches between a grim-looking factory break room and myriad other locations—a messy bedroom, a food court, an elegant restaurant lobby, the gate of a baseball field. Composer and sound designer Billie Cox punctuates the scene changes with jarringly loud rock music as Michael Oesch bathes the stage in colored lights.
Months pass between scenes, notable mostly for how little seems to happen in the interim. By intermission I could only name two things that had really happened in the plot, but LaBute’s artfully inarticulate dialogue and sympathy pangs for people who can’t seem to do anything right kept me rapt nonetheless. There’s one hilariously cringeworthy scene in which Steph publicly shames Greg in a lengthy and elaborate fashion. The second act is especially strong, with some terrifically vindicating and emotionally resonant moments between Greg and each of the other characters, beautifully played by the cast, even if the actual end is a little reminiscent of every ’80s movie.
In fact, it’s almost too satisfying, especially coming from LaBute. Even as some get their comeuppance and others their due, in small, humble ways, you’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop, if only because LaBute is that Lucy who’s pulled the football away from you too many times before for you to trust him even when he’s totally not going to do it this time. Even as things go oddly right for a change, you just know that somehow it’s all going to go horribly wrong. They have to, because that’s what they do. The curtain call is a lie.
Show #31 of 2013, attended March 30.