There may be no better contemporary chronicler of the war between the sexes than Neil LaBute. The film director, playwright, and fiction writer has explored other topics in his work, of course. Most notably, he’s examined the interplay of art and life in films like Possession, Nurse Betty, and The Shape of Things. But LaBute is at his best–his sharpest and most brutal–when he’s laying bare the truth about how badly men and women can treat each other.
Autobahn does just that. The thematic collection of short plays just had its world premiere (in a full production, anyway) at Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre, where it’s playing as part of a “Neil LaBute Festival” until February 5.
LaBute’s work is often sparsely populated. Your Friends & Neighbors features just six credited cast members. The Shape of Things has just four. But in Autobahn, LaBute ups the claustrophobic quotient. Each of the six short plays presented by Studio Theatre (LaBute wrote seven) takes place in the front seat of a car. No play has more than three characters; in half of them, all but a line is spoken by just one. Colin K. Bills’ set is cold and spare: just metal chairs and a steering wheel.
Despite its sterility, it’s a set ripe with possibilities. As the wife in the title skit remarks, “I read in a magazine somewhere, one of the many magazines I have–I know, I know, too many–I saw a breakdown of our lives, one of those pie-shaped thingies that takes time and divides it up into sections, and it said that we as a people spend about an eighth of our lives in cars.”
Perhaps LaBute read the article in question and it got him thinking of the possibilities. Or maybe he liked the idea of people being forced to listen to each other. As the newly recovered addict in “Funny” tells her mother, “I just need to be open with you here… here in the car where you can’t run into the next room or slam the door in my face or throw yourself down on the bed and start crying, this is the place to be honest.”
That honesty isn’t always immediately apparent. We slowly learn that the “Road Trip” of one play’s title is not the innocent fun the words imply. A teenager’s teacher has perhaps persuaded–more likely forced–her to leave school and drive with him to a secluded cabin. In “Merge,” a loving husband tries desperately to get at the truth of what his wife was up to on a business trip. The driver in “Bench Seat” tries to break up with his townie girlfriend–until he finds out what she did to the last college guy who dumped her.
Don’t let these plot summaries make you think Autobahn is 90 minutes of discomfort, though. Like so many others before him, LaBute finds much to laugh at amidst the horror of human relations. We may feel sorry for the graduate student in “Bench Seat”–but his predicament is also very funny. And “All Apologies” is a tour-de-force of comedy. A husband begins his monologue mostly contrite, apologizing to his wife for calling her the c-word in Albertson’s. She doesn’t say a word. Ignored, he manages to work himself into such a lather that he ends his heartfelt statement by swearing at his daughter and calling his wife. . . the c-word.
The women sometimes refused to be ignored. “Felt okay?” the grad student’s girlfriend asks after a brief make-out session. “Really okay. . . more than,” he responds. “Yeah? How much more?” the insecure but intimidating girl asks. In “Funny,” a daughter just out of rehab talks her mother’s ear off. And in the middle of the conversation, seemingly out of blue, she chillingly reveals that her stay was for naught: “I’m going to do everything in my power to use again.”
A woman also has the last word of the evening. It’s the one false note of the production. LaBute has a very good ear for the varied rhythms of American speech. But in trying to inject a summing-up, a note of benevolence, perhaps, he makes one character sound too unlike herself. “Maybe the Germans have it right, after all,” a previously unintelligent-sounding wife in “Autobahn” muses about their motorways. “Perhaps that’s the way it should be. . . all of us speeding by one another, too quick to stop, too fast to care. . . just racing along, off on our little journeys and no sense of how dangerous or careless we’re being.”
In Studio Theatre’s production, it’s the men that shine anyway. In “Bench Seat,” Scott Kerns tells almost the whole story with his facial expressions. And as the deluded husband in “Merge,” James Konicek makes a weak, pitiful man sympathetic and believable–at least to some of those watching.
It’s important, because despite the drubbing he’s received for presenting what appears to be a bleak worldview, LaBute always has compassion for his characters. Even those, and there are many, that tear others apart.
Maybe it’s because LaBute recognizes how easy it is for any one of us to hurt another. Three of Autobahn‘s plays are monologues, with one character not letting another get a word in edgewise. We may not so dramatically shut others out in real life. But we often are completely wrapped up in ourselves, ignoring the feelings of those who are (in this case, literally) right next to us.
The men of Autobahn are also interesting for another reason. The films that made LaBute’s name–In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors–had perfect specimens of the slimy male. And they brought him more than his share of indignant reviews. But some of his latest male creations seem more victim than vulture. They’re both puzzled and held captive by the women in their lives. Some reviewers will likely find as much misogyny in his male victims as they did in his male vultures. But I think that LaBute is simply widening his insights about human nature. His past work has shown, unrelentingly, how people use other people. With Autobahn and The Shape of Things, a previous play made into a film, he reminds us that women can do it just as much as men.
Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash. Her Web site is kellyjanetorrance.com.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | James Velasquez
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond