This Is How It Goes

I’ve been a fan of Neil LaBute’s work since seeing the movie In the Company of Men, which I saw based on this review by James Berardinelli. I also saw Your Friends and Neighbors, and Nurse Betty, which didn’t impress me as much, and his play, The Shape of Things, which was okay (and later also made into a film). LaBute’s work all centers around the ruthless way in which we all manipulate each other to get what we want. It’s sometimes painful, but always thought-provoking, because we can always recognize in ourselves the inclinations towards such behavior, even if we haven’t taken it to the lengths that his characters do. By baldly stating some of the thoughts that we would never admit to thinking, LaBute forces us to confront our own inhumanity.

While perusing TimeOut, I noticed he had a new play out, This Is How It Goes, starring Ben Stiller, Amanda Peet, and Jeffrey Wright. It immediately shot to the top of the list of “shows I want to see in New York”. So I managed to snag a rush ticket this evening. Obstructed view, but it was half price, and the view wasn’t that obstructed. It was a great little theater, about 250 seats, with seats surrounding the thrust of the stage on three sides. So I was in the sixth row (of seven) all the way around towards the side, but since most of the action happened out on the thrust, that was no big deal. And it was kind of cool to be thirty feet away from movie stars like Peet and Stiller. Anyway.

The PR tagline is “LaBute trains his eye on a small town in America for what is billed as a ‘new tale of manipulation, exploitation, race and infidelity,’ through ‘the story of an interracial love triangle.'” One white man, one white woman, and her black husband. I liked it a lot. Be warned, there are spoilers ahead, so if you’re thinking of seeing this, and want to know nothing, you should probably stop here.

One of the things I liked about it was the bit I mentioned in my first paragraph above, where LaBute makes us, his audience, decidedly uncomfortable, by having our likable narrator, Ben Stiller, make horrid racist comments. The bit that makes it uncomfortable is that he makes them in his exposition of his thoughts, where he’s speaking directly to the audience. We’ve all had awful thoughts. We might never admit it, but we do. Maybe not racist thoughts, but perhaps misogynistic thoughts or elitist thoughts – thoughts where we downgrade somebody to a stereotype, and treat them as an object, not a person. That guy that cuts us off in traffic? Asshole. Our conscience will almost immediately edit the thought and we would never say such things out loud, but they’re there, lurking beneath the surface, as Stiller comments at one point. And to hear them, out loud, makes us uncomfortable, because it forces us to confront the awful things we think. That we, no matter how politically correct we aspire to be, still have a primate brain that is instinctually distrustful and hostile towards those that are not like us (as I put it in this post, “in an emotional sense, they aren’t people to us. They don’t evoke our rules of fairness. They are objects in the world, to be used and disposed of.”)

Another thing I liked about the play was the fact that Stiller’s character states at the very beginning that he’s an unreliable narrator. He skips around in time, says things like “Oh, yeah, I should have mentioned this bit that happened two weeks before”, etc. I just like meta-humor, so it works for me. And it works for the play, because it lets LaBute control how information gets dripped to the audience because, as usual, there’s a twist.

I also liked how LaBute brings up the question at the end of whether the ends justify the means. If you had the opportunity to live “happily ever after”, what would you be willing to do to make sure it happened. Would you lie? Steal? How far would you go to get the life that you feel you deserved? Is truth always the best policy? What is truth, anyway? Personally, I feel there are no moral absolutes. There are always exceptions. In each situation, several factors are in play, and which ones you value more highly will determine how you respond. (I can’t resist – in cognitive subroutines speak, the prerequisite conditions for various moral precepts will vary from person to person). LaBute, or, rather, Stiller’s character channeling LaBute answers the question the way most of us probably would, choosing happiness over a strict moral code.

On the way out of the play, they had posted a placard with a reproduction of a letter that LaBute got after the movie Nurse Betty. The writer said they were a fan of Renee Zellweger, and of LaBute’s work, but that the part where Zellweger had kissed Morgan Freeman in the movie was unacceptable, and that left-wing activists like LaBute shouldn’t put that sort of immoral stuff in people’s faces, because most Americans think it’s wrong, and that the writer was going to boycott LaBute’s work and Zellweger’s work from now on for having offended them. Wow. LaBute cites the letter as the inspiration for this play.

They also had an interview from TimeOut, which is not available online as far as I can tell. It had a great quote where the interviewer referred to LaBute’s infamous tendency to avoid happy endings. LaBute’s response: “Happy relationship, shitty play.” Drama comes from conflict. You can see why I like this guy.

I wanted to get my thoughts down on the play while it was fresh in my head. Today I didn’t do much that was exciting. I got off to a slow start, again, because I didn’t get in til 2am last night (I’ll write up yesterday tomorrow, because it’s supposed to rain tomorrow), but I eventually dragged myself out because it was a sunny nice day. I wandered through Chinatown (and stopped for lunch at a place called Mandarin Court, and had what I think was my first significantly subpar meal in New York), then over through SoHo some more (where I put a bid in on a piece of art up for silent auction (seen at right) – I doubt I’ll win it, but it was neat, and it was relatively cheap, and I figured what the hell), then up through a street fair in Greenwich Village, then back to my place for a break before heading out to dinner at a ramen house and off to the play. And now I’m psyching myself up to go catch a midnight showing of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which I really liked when it first came out, at the local independent theater, because midnight movies are always fun. Yeah.

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