Ed Harris in Wrecks
(© Michal Daniel)
Ed Harris in Wrecks
(© Michal Daniel)
In a way, Neil LaBute has become a theatrical brand name. Buy a ticket to one of his plays and you can count on three things: great acting, probably with some movie stardust associated with the cast; a surprise twist at the climax; and a generally superior play. LaBute writes at a consistently high level, which is especially impressive since he's also quite prolific. (Earlier this summer, we witnessed Some Girls, and his recent oeuvre includes such works as Fat Pig and This Is How It Goes.)

His most recent effort, Wrecks, a one-person show starring Ed Harris, debuted last year in Ireland and has just made the transAtlantic crossing to The Public Theater. Not only is the piece exquisitely true to form, it may actually be LaBute's most perfect play. We can't tell you the "surprise" ending -- but there are signposts along the way that, when you look back, will allow you to readily accept the twist.

The action of Wrecks takes place at a funeral home, where a grieving widower named Edward Carr (Harris) is alone in a room with a casket. As he lights up a seemingly endless stream of cigarettes, he takes us into his confidence, telling us the story of his relationship with his wife Mary Jo -- the woman in the casket. He recalls the day he first set eyes on her, how he fought to be with her, how they both almost died in a freak traffic accident. He says how much he loved her -- and we believe him. Then he tells us the whole truth.

But it would be a mistake to dwell too much on the twist, because LaBute didn't come up with it just so he could say "Gotcha!" He wrote Wrecks this way because the emotional content of the story required that certain information be withheld from the audience until the end.

By their nature, one-person shows require top-notch acting -- and, fortunately, Harris is acutely well cast. Edward Carr is a rough man who has grown up hard, an orphan who lived in 10 foster homes in his youth and has the emotional scars to show for it. Harris has the look of a man who has seen the devil and spit in his eye. But his eyes, when unguarded, reveal a sensitive soul.

LaBute's direction is wisely understated, so much so that it's difficult to know where his efforts end and Harris's begin. Suffice it to say that the play's tempo never flags over its 70-or-so minutes. We constantly marvel at the wonderful relationship between these two people, one alive -- though with only months left to live -- and one gone. If you need to characterize Wrecks, do not call it a modern-day O'Henry story. It's a love story, plain and simple.