Playwright Neil LaBute (at left) is a special case. And perhaps a hard case, at least for a critic (like me) who shares his political and intellectual sympathies, yet still takes slight offense at his methods. I admit I keep hoping he'll dispel my doubts about his stage work as thoroughly as he did on the movie screen with his first (and best) film, In the Company of Men. But it keeps on not working out that way.
Take, for instance, Bash: Latter-Day Plays, which just concluded its run this weekend, in a solid production from Theatre on Fire. The play consists of three confessions, each from seemingly-innocent citizens - Your Friends and Neighbors, as LaBute's second film would have it; that is, if your neighbors were Mormons. (I'm not sure the last confessor is a Mormon, but she well could be.) These types are bright, attractive, wholesome, even toothsome - they're each a sparkling slice of American apple pie. Only the pie is laced with poison; beneath the crust of each piece lurks a loathsome crime, most of which go unpunished (again, only the last perpetrator faces justice - perhaps because she's not a Mormon!).
So far, so good, I suppose, and certainly LaBute is smart enough (quite smart enough) to devise an ironic, literary armature beneath the surface of each speech: while his character's actual lines are pure suburban-vanilla, indeed a brilliant parody of business- and sports-driven American prattle, the playwright weaves in clever references to the terrible archetypes of the ancient Greeks - so his girls-on-the-go and masters-of-the-universe weirdly ramify toward both banality and tragedy.
The trouble, I think, lies in their Mormonism, which seems to float as some sort of oblique counterpoint to their terrible crimes (child-killing and gay-bashing). Is LaBute whispering in our ears, "Listen, Mormons kill their children!"? He seems to want to, and not want to, at the same time - yet in the end, that's the impression he leaves.
But what would our reaction be to these plays if his characters were depicted as Jews, or Muslims? (I'll save these comparisons to religious groups which are, like the Mormons, considered "marginal" in America.) After all, there are certainly Jews and Muslims who have killed their children, and bashed gays (just as I'm sure there are Mormons who have done so). But if LaBute had styled his characters as Jews, wouldn't we clamor for some sort of justification for the seeming tie he's implying between his chosen religion and the crimes he describes?
It's true that in one of these "latter-day" plays, the offense (gay-bashing) is obviously linked to Mormon ideology (which villifies homosexuality). But alas, Orthodox Judaism does much the same thing, and so does Islam; they're just about as sexist and homophobic as Mormonism (just ask Bruno!). And LaBute doesn't seem to make an actual tie explicit between his criminals' religion and their actions. Indeed, he covers some extra bases by making his Mormons attend Boston College - just to include squeaky-clean Catholics in his campaign of innuendo, I suppose.
One could argue, of course, that LaBute is absolved of his own form of minority-bashing by the fact that he's "really" attacking that all-American wholesomeness that Mormons and conservative Catholics exploit and identify with (and of course Jews and Muslims aren't reliably Republican). That contention perhaps gets LaBute off the political hook, but does it really get him off the artistic hook? Somehow I don't think so; he still has to answer the question of precisely why these characters' religion matters to our understanding of their actions.
But to many observers in these latter days, such a question probably seems moot, because identity politics is creeping further and further into the foundations of what we imagine "aesthetics" are. (Note, for instance, the recent review of Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone that unconsciously slides from aesthetic judgment into political endorsement. And don't get me started on the relentless identity-politics babble from most of the 'cultural' blogs.) That identity politics are often steeped in what was once called "the politics of resentment" isn't lost on me, either. For LaBute is rather obviously all but dripping with resentment for his vicious college athletes and child-killing salesmen.
Tellingly, however, the playwright transcends his own yen for personal payback in the piece that floats the most free from both Mormonism and, for lack of a better word, physical attractiveness. In Medea Redux, a woman wronged recounts her resulting crime-against-nature in a truly chilling, just-the-facts-ma'am style (into a police recorder, no less) and somehow, stripped of LaBute's political agenda, the piece does brush the cold, inexplicable high places of Greek tragedy. Much of this is due to the performance of Kate Donnelly, who cannily focuses almost exclusively on the blank minutiae of her character's affect (her burning cigarette, etc.) and thus subtly conveys her inability to even articulate to herself the reasons for what she has done. As a result, at the end of her monologue, the audience does, indeed, finally feel as if they've been bashed, too.