Ron Livingston and Frederick Weller in
In a Dark, Dark House
(© Joan Marcus)
Ron Livingston and Frederick Weller in
In a Dark, Dark House
(© Joan Marcus)
In the opening moments of Neil LaBute's latest provocative work, In a Dark Dark House, now at the Lucille Lortel, a thirtysomething security guard named Terry (Frederick Weller) has come to visit his estranged younger brother, Drew (Ron Livingston), in a psychiatric hospital. Drew, a wealthy attorney, is confined here after a spate of bad behavior including drunk driving and coke possession. Eventually, he musters the courage to tell his bro that he was sexually abused in his boyhood by a slightly older family friend named Todd. The furious Terry goes off to search for Todd, with the apparent goal of exacting revenge.

If you've ever seen a LaBute work, this scenario will strike you as emblematic of a writer who has a great talent for exploring the darkest aspects of human relations. Here, LaBute has interesting things to say about the roots of homophobia, what really constitutes abuse, the potentially devastating effects of bad parenting, and other important subjects.

But much of the play is ambiguous, and though this is intentional, it's not necessarily a good thing. For example, I'm hard pressed to explain the significance of the fact that each of the three scenes begins with one of the characters telling another to "go for it." At a certain point during the scene in which Terry meets Jennifer (Louisa Krause), the teenage manager of a miniature golf course, he raises a golf club behind her back as if to smash her head to bits, and the gesture seems to exist only for shock value. Equally confounding is the final image of the play: Terry retrieves an object from his pocket and holds it up to the light, but one can't be sure exactly what his possession of the object is meant to indicate.

One of the strangest bits of business in the production is presumably the inspiration of director Carolyn Cantor, since it's not in the script: Not long after Drew's revelation about Todd, Terry asks to be left alone and then takes out his cell phone as if to make a call, only to tear the phone to pieces. Who was he going to call, and why did he destroy the phone? Is this intriguing, or just confusing?

Whatever the flaws of In a Dark Dark House, LaBute remains a master at crafting dialogue that sounds utterly natural in the mouths of his characters. Such dialogue is catnip to Weller, who gives the latest in a series of superb performances as Terry. Compelling even when Terry's actions and utterances verge on the incredible, Weller appears on stage for all of the show's 90 minutes. He is worthily partnered by Livingston as the enigmatic Drew and Krause as the guileless Jennifer.

Beowulf Boritt's malleable set, skillfully lit by Ben Stanton, serves well as the grounds of the psychiatric hospital, the miniature golf course, and Drew's backyard. As was the case with the New York production of LaBute's The Shape of Things, bursts of loud rock music -- here provided by sound designer Robert Kaplowitz -- introduce each scene. Again, the significance is unclear, but perhaps the music is meant to reflect the anger of one or more of the characters and/or the author.

In a preface to the published script, LaBute writes that In a Dark Dark House is based partly in truth, and that he himself was abused as a child. One hopes that the writing of this play has been therapeutic for him, even if the result isn't as satisfying for the audience as it might have been.