It’s a bit of a speculative reach, but here goes: Neil LaBute wants you to walk out of a theater feeling as though you’ve been sucker-punched. And then he wants to punch you again.
The ex-BYU theater student who wrote and directed the in-your-face films In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors will probably not be penning another frothy romantic comedy anytime soon. He even created a play-turned-movie, The Shape of Things, in which one protagonist was an abrasive, confrontational artist. LaBute writes stuff that makes you squirm, and he thinks that’s a good thing.
Which, sometimes, it is—unless the squirming obstructs your view of a bigger picture. LaBute’s Bash: Latterday Plays— produced locally by Plan-B Theatre Company—should be profoundly unsettling, except that its structure undercuts its aims. It’s like a guy trying to sneak up on you while wearing squeaky shoes and a huge siren on his head.
Bash is actually a trilogy of one-act monologues—in one case, a dual monologue—about ordinary people who do awful things. Medea Redux captures an unnamed young woman (Stephanie Howell) in a police interrogation room describing the fallout from her affair as a 13-year-old with her middle-school teacher. Iphagenia in Orem places a traveling businessman (Carl Nelson) in a Las Vegas hotel room, describing a family tragedy to an unseen woman. The capper is A Gaggle of Saints, in which two young Boston College sweethearts (Howell and Robert Scott Smith) relate the events of a weekend trip to New York City.
As the subtitle might suggest, the characters in Bash are Mormons, or at least influenced in some way by Mormons. The man in Iphagenia in Orem and the couple in A Gaggle of Saints specifically identify themselves as Mormon, while Medea Redux’s heroine merely states that at some point she was living with relatives in Utah—and we can all fill in the blanks from there, eh?
LaBute wants to tease out the darker impulses nurtured by the explicit and implicit messages of LDS church doctrine and culture, and he’s unevenly successful. Iphagenia in Orem presents a chillingly extreme case for the way gender roles twist its narrator’s sense of morality. The gay-bashing of A Gaggle of Saints feels like an obvious, cheap shot by comparison—a reference to “the scriptures” doesn’t help us understand the misguided reasoning—especially when combined with the idea that the hater is simply a deeply repressed homosexual himself. And the connection between the church and the violence in Medea Redux proves so tenuous that it seems LaBute included it simply to fill out the running time.
But the more profound problem with Bash is that its very setup robs it of its power even to shock. The parallel construction of the three works—as well as the marketing—makes it clear that each will begin with a simple life story and end with a murder. It becomes harder to stay in the moment of the three stories, since they become elaborate setups for an “unexpected” act you know is just around the corner. Iphagenia in Orem—by far the most richly constructed piece—manages to sidestep the dilemma of its predictable outcome, but by the time A Gaggle of Saints rolls around, the foreboding makes every innocent comment too obvious a piece of foreshadowing.
There’s a lot to like about Plan-B’s staging, even when you’ve already gotten the point. Howell’s nervous delivery in Medea Redux effectively captures a woman trapped in her adolescence; the tilted furniture of Randy Rasmussen’s set creates an off-kilter universe; and Jeffrey Ingman’s direction and Howell’s superb performance only accentuate the strengths of Iphagenia. But in Bash, Neil LaBute takes his shots at Mormons without considering whether he’s allowing you to keep in touch with the humanity of his characters. He’s so determined to keep punching that he can’t recognize when he has done as much damage as he can do.