“I was always interested in sharks,” says a character in “Bash,” who has that much, at least, in common with Neil LaBute, the play’s author and the filmmaker behind the provocative “In the Company of Men” and the spectacularly vile “Your Friends and Neighbors,” examinations of nefarious behavior among white-collar warriors and urban sophisticates. “Bash,” subtitled “Latterday Plays” as a nod to the Mormon characters that largely people them, is a collection of three contemporary horror stories for the stage, performed by a hotshot trio of young actors — Calista Flockhart, Ron Eldard and Paul Rudd — under the sharp and subtle direction of Joe Mantello.
This is not Stephen King-style horror, of course. For LaBute, the doings of witches, vampires and sundry satanic forces can’t hold a candle to the monstrosities committed by regular mall-going, cable TV-watching white folks. But in truth his stories are no less supernatural than King’s: Allusions to Greek tragedy notwithstanding, LaBute doesn’t possess creative powers of sufficient scope to make his cool tales of monstrous misbehavior anything other than superficially shocking.
Though persuasively acted here, the characters and crimes in LaBute’s aesthetic universe are unintentionally fantastic — not of this world — and they don’t affect us any more deeply than do the ghouls of scary fiction.
The evening begins with “Medea Redux,” a solo work performed by Flockhart, the up-and-coming stage actress who upped and went to Hollywood a few years back, where she became famous and famously skinny as “Ally McBeal.” Back onstage, she reveals talents little used in her role as the fey attorney on the Fox TV show: a quietly seething intensity, a captivating and, yes, delicate physical presence, a natural command of the stage that seduces the audience’s sympathy as her character reveals the terrible consequences of her own seduction by an older man.
Flockhart’s character sits at a plain table in a glaring pool of light, facing an unseen interrogator as she unfolds a tale that tours some quietly harrowing terrain before its disappointingly lurid finale. Her current age is at first uncertain as she recalls an affair with a schoolteacher that began when she was 13. The loping inflections are those of an adolescent, but her shattered presence and hollowed eyes suggest someone too shell-shocked to be a teen.
LaBute’s writing is at its finest here, as the casual voice of the uncertain girl is ultimately revealed to be that of a woman whose emotional development was arrested at a young age, the victim of a traumatic pregnancy and abandonment by her older lover. Flockhart’s tremulous air, her fluttering hands and gauntly lit features (accentuated in James Vermeulen’s stylish, harshly dramatic lighting) lend an air of disturbing authenticity to a tale that is most affecting when it’s least sensational, before the accretion of truthful detail (“I went to our house with our baby inside me, and watched ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ on TV…”) gives way to a grisly, shocking finale.
Flockhart’s performance is so fine she ultimately transcends the patly horrific ending alluded to in the title, letting out a howl of despair and rage that is so pure and profoundly felt it lends its own, harrowing truth to the play — a volley of anguish untethered to the narrative that reveals an actress who can communicate wells of pain that reach deeper than the text does.
Eldard is equally fine in a blackly comic turn as a Mormon businessman unloading a similar tale of guilt and psychic expiation to a visitor to his Las Vegas hotel room, a floral nightmare exquisitely designed by Scott Pask.
With the ingratiating but cocky smile of the guy’s guy who thinks he’s more funny than he is, this charmer smoothly recalls the terrible lengths to which he went to ensure his continued employment as a middle manager at the Salt Lake office of a generic conglomerate (and to cement the dismissal of a female rival who brings out his not very latent misogyny). LaBute certainly has an ear for the smarmy talk of this self-satisfied character, but this play, “Iphigenia in Orem,” ends with essentially the same tragedy as “Medea Redux,” a supposedly loving parent’s murder of his own child.
Perhaps the most inhuman of crimes, it can only be made plausible if the killer’s humanity is so compellingly conveyed that the audience cannot question it — and if the circumstances surrounding it have their own inexorable force. Neither is the case here. LaBute is no Euripides, and the characters in these plays aren’t drawn with enough emotional depth to make their monstrous behavior believable, as it must be if we are to be moved to pity and terror, and not just a shrug of dismissal.
The crime described in the final play, “A Gaggle of Saints,” is perhaps more common, but here, too, LaBute’s writing is too superficial to lend the play the power it needs. Flockhart and Rudd play two handsome Mormon college students who hit New York for a formal affair one spring weekend and end up embroiled in a gruesomely described gay bashing.
Rudd’s boyish charm certainly conveys a chill as he begins casually describing the unfolding of the murder, but LaBute’s text is diffuse and implausible. (LaBute lays himself open to charges of ignorance with his unlikely description of a gay couple’s evening in Central Park, for instance, and would this callow college boy really employ words like “carrion”?) LaBute may intend here to reveal the voracious hollowness at the core of people who seem superficially nice, but characters who remain placidly unchanged by the horrors they commit are inherently undramatic. Zombies don’t work well onstage.
Despite performances that flesh out these quiet devils as best they can, we leave “Bash” with no new knowledge of its ostensible subject, the seemingly normal heart’s terrible capacity for cruelty. Watching the play is like staring into the souls of statistics, trying to examine the hearts of newspaper headlines.