Wednesday, April 25, 2012

'DARK', PERHAPS, BUT HARDLY 'DEEP' - 'In A Forest, Dark And Deep' at Profiles Theatre

(photo by Wayne Karl)

Say what you will about Neil LaBute, the man is a skilled technician. Though I often find his characterizations simplistic and single-sided, the playwright is adept at shaping natural, realistic conversation for his loopy, warped individuals. The chief pleasure of a LaBute play is hardly ever his psychological thriller twists, but rather the infinitesimal exchanges between his people.

Working within easily recognizable formulas and paint-by-numbers scenarios, LaBute has brought us The Shape Of Things, This Is How It Goes, reasons to be pretty, among others - and inside of that formula, he does what he does incredibly well. That is, he did it incredibly well, for the U.S. premiere of his In A Forest, Dark and Deep, which opened on Thursday at Profiles Theatre, has all the finesse of a self-published trade novella.

The premise of Dark and Deep is as thin and transparent as cellophane, hindered, not by its formula, but by a supreme lack of creativity within the frame. Betty (Natasha Lowe) asks her brother Bobby (Darrell W. Cox), a smelly looking man on a divergent path, to assist her in packing up a cabin she was renting out. That the cabin exists, and that Betty was renting it out is news to Bobby, who, shortly after his entrance, jumps on the train of accusatory vilification, and rides it until the very last stop. This family, like all stage families, has secrets. Whether or not these secrets are engrossing to anyone outside of this family becomes the overriding question of In A Forest, Dark and Deep.

Twenty minutes in, I already had a clear idea of how the play would end, and with that foresight, I prayed that the unraveling would still be compelling. But my forlorn prayers went unanswered. The plot and interactions are reduced to a series of pointless fights that cease escalation, and correspondingly enjoyment, somewhere in the middle of the play. Structurally the fights all follow this predictable pattern: quiet, loud, Louder, LOUDEST, reflective calm. Their ceaseless repetition becomes decadent with a snap of the fingers, and the audience is desensitized to the quarrels speedily.

Produced in Profiles' new Main Stage, what was once the National Pastime Theatre, the physical production fits snugly – performed on Thad Hallstein’s two-level cabin set. Now, with the freedom to construct multiple level sets, an impossibility on their Alley Stage, Profiles has a massive body of ‘secret hidden attic’ and ‘unobtrusive offstage bedroom’ plays at their disposal. But with great space comes great responsibility, and Profiles, a theatre that prides itself on edginess through intimacy, departs dramatically from that sentiment with LaBute’s play.

The close proximity is shattered by the unbearably loud and overly presentational performances. To the actors’ credit, though, that is reflective of the dialogue, which occasionally sounds as if scrawled out by crayon. Memorable gems like “I’m so good at deceiving folks” are uttered without blinking an eye.

Natasha Lowe is the main offender in the volume game. She speaks like she cannot hear a single word, and given the stiffness of her performance, I doubt she can. Lowe imbues her language with odd formality of rhythm and tone. While Lowe and Cox's characters certainly lead opposing lives, their portrayals don't reside on the same planet. Cox’s Bobby has been plucked right from the trailer park, and Betty’s voice has a New England twang that jumbles the relationship although it’s expressly stated.

Director Joe Jahraus' staging does the best it can with the drowsy material, but becomes fixed and complacent. Betty mostly inhabits state left and Bobby, stage right – not necessarily areas of power for either of them, but places of mobile convenience. Usually separated by a couch, Betty rightly always appears to be hiding from her brother.

LaBute receives frequent criticism for the prevalence of misogyny in his plays, and here is no different. Betty’s wilted, weak persona allows nary a second of persevering strength in the play. Her motivations and actions are harped upon with society’s contempt by her brother, and the explanation for those actions in the final resolution is pathetic, to say the least. At the performance I attended, Betty also got no laughs. If a character is not being laughed at in an occasionally funny play, no one is sympathizing with her, which is akin to being inhuman. Keep in mind that Bobby, a man who, in a short but punchy speech, defends domestic abuse, is the veritable master of ceremonies.-Johnny Oleksinski

‘In A Forest, Dark and Deep’ by Neil LaBute runs through June 3 at Profiles Theatre.