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This Is How It Goes

The Public Theater production of Neil LaBute's play about racism in the Midwest stars Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Peet, and Ben Stiller. logo
Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Peet, and Ben Stiller
in This Is How It Goes
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Neil LaBute doesn't think much of people -- and that's putting it mildly, which LaBute himself never does and is never likely to do. You wouldn't guess it from talking to him; he's affable as your favorite uncle. But to see how his plays and movies cumulatively give humankind a failing grade is to conclude that here's a man who wasn't schooled by Doctor Pangloss. LaBute, whose works are adding up to the theatrical equivalent of a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, is convinced that men and women are manipulative, intolerant, distrustful, and out to get each other with every fiber in their often buff bodies.

As of now, it seems that his men are trumping his women in nastiness, but there's every reason to believe that the women will even the score as LaBute continues writing. It's the boys against the girl in In the Company of Men, the girl against the boy in The Shape of Things. In Your Friends and Neighbors, the underhanded battle between the sexes is something of a draw. In Bash: Latterday Plays the vengeful boys outnumber the girl three to two. In The Mercy Seat, it's the guy who's the snake. In The Distance From Here, the boys again come off as the worse -- one of them is truly a "skell," to use police parlance. LaBute only eases up a bit in Fat Pig, where the eponymous character is actually endearing, if all the worse off for it, and the focal fellow is not a villain, though he is as spineless as a jellyfish. (His friend's a heel, though.)

The boys extend their lead even farther in LaBute's newest exercise in misanthropy, This Is How it Goes -- a title that's both a distillation of the dramatist's dark view of his fellow man and an ironic suggestion that the play's "this" may not be what's presented at all. A man identified as "Man," played by Ben Stiller, begins to lay out his story but admits that he might turn out to be "an unreliable narrator." He's going to tell us how it goes with him; with a woman named Belinda (Amanda Peet, in for Marisa Tomei during early rehearsals), whom he once coveted; and with her husband Cody (Jeffrey Wright), who was the high school star athlete and the only African-American for miles around their Midwest town. (The burg's Sears outlet and other locales are presented by way of Batwin + Robin's sleek projections on a screen behind Riccardo Hernández's squeaky-clean, economical set.)

The series of events that the Man recounts involves his return to the Everytown, his running into Belinda and learning that she and Cody have an apartment to rent over their garage, his taking up residence there, and his rapidly coming between the well-off marrieds, who are raising a few (unseen) children but aren't getting along with each other at all. On the surface, the philandering Cody and his ex-lawyer renter are oil and water. Cody barely seems to remember that they knew each other as children, when they traded valuable baseball cards. Indeed, Cody appears to dislike the interloper so much that he instigates a tussle. (Fight director Luis Perez stages it extremely well.) But something's afoot that the self-proclaimed unreliable narrator is not telling, even as it becomes increasingly clear that he's a bigot in big-time denial.

How it goes from there -- with at least one scene played in two versions -- won't be divulged, because LaBute's a playwright who deals in surprises. Those he has in store this time have the effect of those candies that burst into various flavors in one's mouth. As the revelations unfurl, patrons will fall into two camps -- one camp being die-hard LaBute fans, the other being those who can resist the man's wiles and, moreover, find them laughably forced. The former will cheer LaBute's having found yet another plot in which to ring changes on his men-against-women-against-themselves theme. The latter camp will go away convinced that the plawyright is beginning to repeat himself and is resorting to farther-out contrivances in his work.

Director George C. Wolfe, closing out his tenure as head of The Public Theater, guides his cast with easy command. He has directed Jeffrey Wright often (Angels in America, Topdog/Underdog, etc.) and has done much to prove that the actor is one of the most versatile we have. Handsome and trim and with an appropriate tightness around his features, Wright thrusts across a mean Cody in this rather different topdog/underdog study. Amanda Peet, pretty in the casual outfits that costume designer Sandra Hernandez has given her, plays another of LaBute's unsuspecting women with a form of suburban grace. Ben Stiller does a gallant job of not hesitating to make himself ugly of nature -- though physique-wise he's awesome, dude. The man Stiller's posing as in his overdue stage return has tough racist epithets to spout, and the actor gives them his all in order to help LaBute demonstrate once again that, unfortunately, this is how it goes.

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