Logan Marshall-Green and Mark Webberin The Distance From Here(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
Logan Marshall-Green and Mark Webber
in The Distance From Here
(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
In the published version of The Distance From Here, which is dedicated to the critic John Lahr, playwright Neil LaBute affixes two epigraphs. The first is from W.H. Auden's somber "As I Walked Out One Evening" and the second is from one of the late Kurt Cobain's signature lyrics: "Oh well, whatever, never mind." That "whatever" apparently stopped LaBute in his writing tracks. In his latest play, he puts the overused word into characters' mouths with amusing frequency -- amusing but also ominous because he's writing about people for whom "whatever" is not just a casual remark. It's a philosophy.

Nothing that members of the Whatever Generation do has much meaning for them, nor does anything done by anyone else. Everything goes, and why shouldn't it? There's little sense of duty or responsibility and little remorse over anything; there's only instant gratification. It's the kind of liberty that might be understood as a logical outcome of unendingly pursuing the American Dream yet it's surely not a development in which the founding fathers would have taken pleasure or pride. It's the result of losing a sense of tradition or even of genuine happiness. It's an affliction that isn't confined to the unintelligent though it may be more and more common among the increasingly dumbed-down general population.

These are the people whom LaBute scopes -- microscopes -- in The Distance From Here, and they're not a pretty bunch in the clothes that costume designer Angela Wendt might have bought in a "whatever" mood off the rack at Conway. They're such an unsavory group that LaBute -- who premiered this play at his London base, The Almeida Theatre -- has been getting flak for training his eye on them, as if the choice of subject matter and not how it's treated is the criterion on which to base approval or disapproval. He's been criticized for even noticing these characters -- as if notice implies collusion, as if writing about people who seem to lack socially redeeming qualities couldn't possibly be socially redeeming.

In face, LaBute scrupulously mines his characters for their redemption potential; anyone missing this resolute quest of his had best look again. Some of the negative attitude toward his work may be traceable to LaBute himself, of course. He's evidenced little hope for salvation in some of his earlier stage and/or screen works -- e.g., bash, The Shape of Things, In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors. But with his 9/11 drama The Mercy Seat, he started to spy little glimmers of relief, indicating as much in that play's unironic title.

He finds that glimmer again -- even if very late -- in The Distance From Here, which concerns the reckless, disturbed adolescent Darrell (Mark Webber) and his stammering pal Tim (Logan Marshall-Green). Ostensibly, LaBute's protagonist is Darrell, who's first seen with Tim jeering apes at a zoo and thus suggesting his own ape-like behavior. (Perhaps this is a Spokane zoo; LaBute was raised there and it may be no accident he and Kurt Cobain are from Washington.) An aimless, hooky-playing student, Darrell lives with his mother Cammie (Melissa Leo) and her boyfriend Rich (Josh Charles). He often gets to see his stepsister Shari (Anna Paquin) when she visits the cheaply furnished ranch-style house with her usually squalling newborn -- and when she drops in, she's not averse to vamping him or Rich. When Darrell isn't restless at home, he's hanging out with Tim and/or with girlfriend Jenn (Alison Pill).

What happens between and among this goal-less group of cigarette smokers and beer drinkers isn't very much but continues in desultory fashion until Darrell, who's driven to jealous rages over Jenn's behavior, learns something about her past that he doesn't like. In questioning her about the lapse, he loses any remaining sense of moral direction and does something drastic with Shari's baby. After he flees, Tim and Jenn begin to examine their behavior. Hence: genuine redemptive possibilities.

Among the attributes that make a LaBute work so compelling is his ear for dialogue. These people, who hail from a different social stratum than he typically scratches, are so uninterested in how they speak to one another that they habitually lop off the beginnings of sentences; for example, a remark like "Don't worry about it" comes out as "Worry 'bout it" but no one mistakes the verbal shorthand. These are blue-collar folk who are obscene without being nasty -- all but Darrell, that is, who's actually lost. LaBute hears their vulgarity as distinctly as David Mamet or Jez Butterworth do.

Anna Paquin, Josh Charles, and Melissa Leoin The Distance From Here(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
Anna Paquin, Josh Charles, and Melissa Leo
in The Distance From Here
(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
There are no false notes as Michael Greif directs the cast shrewdly. They skitter like spiders across Louisa Thompson's sets, the outdoor simulations of which always feature an emblematic trashcan or two -- and, in one instance, a planter overflowing with garbage. (The enveloping backdrop is blue and not at all unlike the cracked blue ice represented on the thematically related Frozen set; a frozen body of water is a significant LaBute symbol.) Mark Webber, who created the role of Darrell in London, has the same kind of cold cockiness that Kevin Bacon had in his earlier days; his edginess is so marked that it's practically contagious, and his mouth and eyes chill.

Playing opposite him, Logan Marshall-Green is stringy as a handful of boiled spaghetti and speaks in a voice that judders between high and low registers. Whereas Darrell initially occupies the moral vacuum at the center of LaBute's disquisition, eventually Tim is in the spotlight, and Marshall-Green fills it with a young man's free-floating fright. (James Vermeulen, the lighting designer, comprehends that pools of darkness are important to the play. Robert Kaplowitz is the sound designer who follows LaBute's notion of incorporating Smashing Pumpkins into his scheme, as did sound man Fergus O'Hare for The Shape of Things.) Alongside Webber and Marshall-Green, Melissa Leo, Josh Charles, Anna Paquin (in the sort of role that she's perhaps doing too regularly), and Alison Pill more than hold their own. Their versions of lower-class dynamism are letter-perfect; the horseplay and eventual beatings in which the men indulge, supervised by Rick Sordelet, is downright scary.

In Edward Bond's 1965 Saved, another play that drew alarmed nay-saying, a baby is featured in a violent vignette similar to the climactic scene with which LaBute draws gasps here. LaBute has called his sort-of appropriation an hommage to Bond; others may see it as something more along the lines of out-and-out lifting and may feel that it represents the play's only real flaw. Still, the author has used babies or children as symbols of abused and sacrificed innocence in previous works such as bash, Iphigenia in Orem, and Medea Redux, so it could be said in his defense that he's simply continuing to pursue the theme. The Distance From Here goes the distance.